Today, I’m joined in the reading room by A.M. Justice, author of A Wizard’s Forge.
Drew: So, first of all, thank you for joining us this evening. So tell us, what are you currently working on?
A.M.: The sequel to A Wizard’s Forge, a book called A Wizard’s Sacrifice. I’d planned/hoped to release it this year, but it’s been a bear and I’m still working on it.
Drew: Are you into the editing stage or still drafting?
A.M.: I’m revising based on beta reads and my editor’s suggestions. Forgive me for getting on my high horse, but I have to say how much I hate using the word “editing” when one means “revising.” A development editor may call his or her work an “edit” but that is providing the author with suggestions for REVISIONS the author must make to make the work better. An author “edits” at only the final phase of preparation for submission or publication, when they make their final line edits or copy-edits. Right now, I’m rewriting scenes and chapters to address the problems my beta readers and editor have had. Sorry to go on a rant but that’s a pet peeve of mine.
Drew: That’s perfectly fine. I hope the revisions go well. Do you have a new estimate for the release or are you playing it by ear?
A.M.: I wish I had a firm date but I really don’t. Between the house, the day job, looking at high schools for my daughter (in NYC, all eight graders are eligible for enrollment in any high school city-wide, which means you have to go on tours and complete applications and yada yada yada…it’s a pain in the butt), and my own struggles with self-doubt and “what’s the point-ism” I haven’t been able to put my nose to the grindstone with this one.
Drew: I can understand that, especially in the self-doubt area. If it helps any, I know there are plenty of people wanting to know what happens next with Vic.
A.M.: That is nice to know. I wish I could provide you all with an answer to that question! It’s actually Ashel’s storyline that’s been really a struggle. And self-doubt is a real bummer. It’s been a major source of writer’s block for me in the past. Nothing is ever as good as you want it to be, and that can make it hard to carry on.
Drew: Vic, for those who may not have read A Wizard’s Forge, is your main protagonist. How would you describe her?
A.M.: Vic, which is short for Victoria, is a young woman who lives on a planet that was settled by space-farers from Earth several millennia before. When we first meet her, she’s a precocious and somewhat arrogant teenager who soon gets psychologically torn apart when she’s captured and sold as a slave to a tyrannical master. After she escapes from him, she sets about rebuilding herself. The book is called A Wizard’s Forge because she “forges” herself into something entirely different and much more powerful than the person she was at the beginning.
Drew: Victoria’s treatment at the hands of Lornk is devastating to her and ranks as some of the more uncomfortable reading I can remember in a fantasy novel. Were you ever worried about the reaction to it?
A.M.: Oddly, no. I was actually really surprised by readers who HATED the book (and there have been plenty of haters) because of those scenes. It’s only one chapter in the book, but it looms large in readers’ minds so that a lot of people really fixate on it and don’t talk about the rest of the book.
Drew: Maybe it just strikes a nerve somewhere in some people.
A.M.: It seems to. I wrote the book long before the #metoo era and this seemingly new fashion to discourage authors from including sexual assault in narratives. I’m a full supporter of #metoo and I completely understand the why some critics/readers/authors advocate avoiding rape and sex abuse, because when those subjects are handled callously or casually, they are offensive and do “normalize” that sort of behaviour. I tried really hard to show the harmful effects of Lornk’s treatment of Vic. I also hope readers recognize that his efforts to break her will are multi-pronged and sexual assault is only one of many tactics.
Drew: I’m glad you mentioned the science fiction elements earlier, since that was one of the things I really enjoyed about the book. Given the amount of time that has passed since your world was colonized and the amount of knowledge lost, it brings to mind the old adage regarding magic & technology. Was that a deliberate effort on your part?
A.M.: The deliberate effort was to provide a scientific rationale for the magic. The magic isn’t the hand-waving sort of spell-casting where the power comes from some mystical source. Instead, the powers are similar to Jedi knights’ powers: telekinesis and telepathy. Like in Star Wars, there’s a biological source. It’s the midi-chlorians in SW, and it’s a neurological parasite called the Woern in my work.
Incidentally, I never heard of the midi-chlorians until someone else pointed out the similarity. I really, truly independently thought of that idea! And I thought of it because I like having a scientific (or pseudo-scientific) explanation for “magic.”
Drew: Well, it certainly worked for me. You also include a non-human species, who are instrumental in helping Vic unlock her abilities. Do you plan to re-visit them, or include other species?
A.M.: The Kragnashians, which are giant arthropods that vaguely resemble an 18-foot-tall cross between a praying mantis, an army ant, and a millipede, play a MAJOR role in A Wizard’s Sacrifice. The main conflict of the story involves them in a big way.
Drew: Better not say any more then…
A.M.: Ah come on! I wanna shout from the rooftops, “Vic gets to fight big bugs!”
Drew: OK, that’s not too spoilery, we can live with that. But moving away from Vic for the time being, you’ve also appeared in some anthologies in between the books. I often find it a help to have something else to work on when stuck on a primary WIP, does the same ring true for you?
A.M.: Yes and no. I wish I were more disciplined as a writer because when I commit to preparing a story for an anthology, it becomes yet another albatross around my neck. I find it very, very hard to get going with things. Rewriting is always much easier for me than facing down the blank page, even when I have a solid idea. For instance, I recently finished a short story that is a prequel to A Wizard’s Sacrifice, which is set 1000 years earlier, when people with Vic’s powers were common. (During A Wizard’s Forge, Vic and one other person are the only ones in the entire world with her telekinetic powers.) Anyhow, it took me 2 years to finish this one short story. I do LIKE writing other things though, when I can force it out. It’s good for me, and all writers, to write new things and do something DIFFERENT. So I have written several stories that have nothing to do with Vic’s world, and I’m glad I put forth the effort.
Drew: You said recently, is that first story available?
A.M.: I have submitted the prequel to a magazine that publishes dark fantasy and I’m waiting for their response. Fingers crossed!
Drew: Be sure to let me know, I’ll keep an eye out for it.
A.M.: In terms of other things I’ve done, in the anthology Blackest Knights there’s a story called “The Weight of Bliss” which is also a prequel to A Wizard’s Forge. It’s about a healer named Moralen who has a narcotic addiction, and the story includes a cameo from a 10-year-old Lornk, who will grow up to be Vic’s tormentor in Forge. The healer makes an appearance in A Wizard’s Sacrifice. I have a more traditional fantasy story in a different anthology called It’s A Living, which depicts a day in the life of a housekeeper in charge of a sorceress’s domestic staff. It’s Downton Abbey in a fantasy world. Then I have several stories set in the present day or near-future that are published by Brickmoon Entertainment in the anthologies One Nation Divisible 2020 (“Cell Service,” about a teenage girl who has to choose between friendship and family amid post-election riots), It Came from the Comment Section (“Ghost Friend,” an epistolary story about the deterioration of an online friendship), and Beyond Prometheus (“Perfectly Normal Abomination” about a young boy with unusual origins)
Drew: Now, we’re also currently in full swing with this year’s SPFBO competition and you’re acting as one of the judges. How did that come about?
A.M.: I was already a contributor to Fantasy Faction, and I simply asked to join their judging team when this year’s competition began. I really enjoyed participating in SPFBO 4 as a competitor, even though A Wizard’s Forge didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. So I wanted to continue participating in the competition.
Drew: How’s it going so far?
A.M.: We are halfway through our batch. There have been some really enjoyable books in our batch, and a couple I’ve read all the way through. I can’t really say more though. Fantasy Faction doesn’t pick semifinalists like some of the other blogs, so THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE from our group.
Drew: I see. Well, I’ll look forward to see who you put forward for the Gathering…
At this point, we take a short break to re-watch Highlander. Much quoting of lines, and a mock swordfight, ensues.
Drew: Now, coming back to other writers, who do you consider to be your influences?
A.M.: The easy answer to the question of influence is, whoever I’m reading at the time. For instance, I’m reading Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth right now, and I swear his cadences are turning up in my prose at the moment. I have to struggle against it because I’m not an older British man writing about very British things in an alternate universe England. But if you’re accidentally emulating someone, he’s not a bad choice.
With regard to the Woern Saga (Vic’s story), there’s a straight-line connection to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. The setting and main character have a lot in common. Then there is my literary idol, Ursula K Le Guin. I don’t write at all like her, but I adore her work with the passion of a thousand suns. It’s fucking brilliant.
Drew: Coming back to Vic and her story, do you have further instalments planned beyond A Wizard’s Sacrifice?
A.M.: Yes. There’s a novel called A Wizard’s Legacy that is set roughly 20 years from the end of Sacrifice and will feature the next generation of Knownearth’s wizards. Then I may write a prequel novel with Lornk as a protagonist. I have toyed with the idea of writing Lornk’s story for years.
Drew: I imagine that’s not an easy head-space to get into.
A.M.: He fascinates me, and he has “reasons” for the evil things he does, which from his point of view, are “necessary.” Readers will discover in A Wizard’s Sacrifice that the hints he drops about Vic’s destiny and his goals are not crazy man talk. One of the challenges of writing Sacrifice is finding a balance in how Lornk and his endgame are portrayed.
Drew: Is that one of the revisions you mentioned?
A.M.: Yes. The difficulty is Lornk’s plotline is told from Ashel’s point of view. Ashel carries a shit-ton of baggage into Sacrifice from Forge, and so far my beta readers haven’t felt like I’ve dealt with it in a way that makes sense and works with how things must go down in the plot. This is the struggle of every writer: making a character’s actions seem the natural outflow of their personality and experiences.
When you need a character to go somewhere and do a thing that is the last thing on earth they’d ever do…how do you bring the character to that turning point, where the decision makes sense.
Drew: Well, that’s the fun of writing, isn’t it?
A.M.: It is! It can be a triumph when you succeed, but when you don’t, it’s demoralizing as hell. And sometimes you can dismiss one reader or critique’s opinion when they feel you haven’t succeeded in making the plot and character flow seamlessly from each other, but when multiple people tell you you’ve failed: UGH!
Drew: True, but we have to keep trying, don’t we?
A.M.: Yes, we do need to keep trying. And actually, I LOVE the process of taking critical feedback and using it to reshape the work into something better. This book has been just a real mountain to climb though.
Drew: Have you developed a process for dealing with critiques?
A.M.: Usually I read the comments, whatever form they’re in, and let them stew in my head for a while. Then solutions start percolating. I usually find it really stimulating, actually. It really gets the gears going, and if you have a critique partner whom you trust and you can use as a sounding board, it can be thrilling and invigorating.
Drew: Sounds like you have a really good attitude about it.
A.M.: Well, part of it comes from the fact that normally I prefer rewriting to writing.
Drew: Plus, as you said, having a trusted partner is a big part of it as well.
A.M.: Absolutely. On Sacrifice, I got excellent feedback from 3 different beta readers and my editor Amanda Rutter. I’d never worked with 2 of the betas before but their comments were totally on point and extremely valuable. Amanda edited A Wizard’s Forge, and she’s a great sounding board. And the third beta reader is a long-time critique partner. She and I can be brutal with each other, but we know it comes from a place of love.
Drew: All in service of making the best story possible, right?
A.M.: Absolutely. So even though the process has been particularly painful and has taken far, far longer than I planned, I wouldn’t skip it for the world. The book will be a whole, whole lot better at the end of it.
Drew: I usually finish off an interview with some random questions, if you’re ready?
Drew: Last film you saw in a theatre?
Drew: Favourite season?
A.M.: Ermm, a tie between summer and fall.
Drew: Drink of preference?
A.M.: Wine. Variety depends on the season and what I’m eating.
Drew: Can you quote a piece of poetry?
A.M.: I used to know this children’s poem by heart and could recite it in its entirety long, long into my adulthood:
An old witch sat at home all aloneThe Witch on a Windy Night by Bernice Chardiet
Cooking and cooking an old soup bone…
But I don’t remember the rest.
Drew: Cats or dogs?
A.M.: Cats rule, brother! Not at all a dog person.
Drew: Favourite muppet?
A.M.: Hmmm, gotta be the Swedish chef.
Drew: Any last words for the readers?
A.M.: Just one more thought to revisit the issue of self-doubt and the difficulty we writers have sometimes crafting our worlds. There’s a story by J.R.R. Tolkien (yep, that guy) called Leaf by Niggle that I always thought perfectly captured my feelings about my work. It’s about this ordinary man named Niggle with ambitions to be an artist, who spends his entire life working on a single painting of a tree. He keeps scratching out parts of the tree and redoing them, and he’s never satisfied and so never finishes before he dies. The painting gets broken up and most of it gets thrown away, except for a single perfect leaf, which becomes recognized as a great work of art. I feel very much like I’m Niggle, striving to create that one perfect leaf, and I’ll probably spend my whole life on this project.
And other than that, my final thought is: thanks for taking the time to read about me and my work!
Drew: And let’s not forget, “Vic gets to fight big bugs!”
If you want to read any of our other interviews, they can be found here.