Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Dale Lucas?
Since ‘International Man of Mystery’ is taken, I guess I’ll settle for Connoisseur of All Things Geek and globe-trotting bon vivant. I’m a pretty typical nerd who grew up skinny and pale, subsisting on a steady diet of genre films, Ace paperbacks, comic books and brain-rotting cartoons. These days, I write stories between 9 to 5 shifts at a day job, gobble books, enable my foodie impulses and, when able, travel. I can also mix a pretty mean Old Fashioned.
Your new novel, The Fifth Ward: First Watch, will be published by Orbit in July. It looks rather fun: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
It’s most definitely the starting point for a series! My standard pitch is: it’s Lord of the Rings meets Lethal Weapon. Or, if you prefer, The Wire in Middle Earth. Basically, I just took all of the buddy cop movies I grew up watching — Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Running Scared — and even hard-edged police procedurals like NYPD Blue, and set one of those stories about combative partners out for justice in a teeming urban jungle in a classic, pre-industrial fantasy city full of humans, dwarves, elves and orcs.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
It was probably just a collision of two things that I already loved and was familiar with. Back when I first conceived of it, I was coming off of a few years in Hollywood, where I tried to make some headway as a screenwriter (and didn’t). Shortly before I had the notion for First Watch, I’d been revisiting old cop movies and reading a lot of crime fiction. One day, all that cops-and-robbers stuff just crashed into the swords-and-spells bin in my imagination, and I instantly knew I had something. While I knew that a few other authors had sorta-kinda played in that sandbox, I was thinking of a very specific sort of tone and storytelling approach, where I would play it all straight. No overt satire, no nudges and winks — just a grounded (for fantasy, anyway), gritty tale about everyday heroes who had jobs to do and couldn’t run off on big, universe-saving quests, in search of magic artifacts, or to topple Dark Lords. Likewise, since my heroes would be rooted in a place and have a number of adventures over the course of time in that place, it allowed me to create a big, bustling, complex cityscape that becomes a character unto itself, which is one of my favorite things to do.
And that dovetails directly into the second part of your question, about inspiration. While the fiction I’ve read and the movies I’ve absorbed over the years have definitely inspired me and fired my imagination, I actually get a lot of my inspiration from history itself. I’m a research nut, constantly digging into all sorts of strange, esoteric subjects just to see if there’s a story hiding in them. So, when this concept came to me, I was immediately gifted all of these ideas about what the city would be like, how the city watch would run, and what sorts of problems and conflicts our heroes might run into, care of all the reading I’ve done over the years about everyday life in the Roman empire, or Aztec Mexico, or Renaissance-era Europe.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
My earliest movie memory is seeing Star Wars in theaters when I was about three. Then came Saturday afternoon showings of Planet of the Apes on our local UHF station, followed by an ill-advised viewing of Alien when I was about five (ill-advised only because I loved it and became obsessed thereafter with squidgy, toothy, people-eating monsters). Our public television station played Dr. Who reruns on Saturday nights, Marvel Comics were on wire spinners in corner convenience stores, and anime like Voltron and Robotech was just starting to propagate on afternoon TV. My natural inclination was toward dragons, spaceships, monsters and the macabre, and I was lucky enough to be surrounded by all that stuff, pretty much everywhere I turned. Oh, and I was lousy at sports and hated being outside — so I had to embrace and nurture something. Genre stuff just happened to be it. My passion for it has never left me.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I love being a writer, because I don’t know how not to be — but that’s also the reason it can hurt sometimes. I wrote my first story when I was about six and I’ve been doing so, compulsively, ever since. I’ve never wanted to be anything else (okay, briefly an archeologist or a movie special effects makeup artist), and I’ve never had any sort of back up to that grand plan. The upside to that is that I’ve been pretty tightly focused, since childhood, on one specific goal: tell stories, find a way to get paid for it. The downside is that the world isn’t kind to people who want to do this for a living, so sometimes, you kind of kick yourself and beat your head against the wall and say, “Seriously… why can’t I just settle for something else? I’d be so much happier.”
But if you really want to do it, you keep at it. It might take a long time to get anywhere — I’m 42 and this is my first book from a major publisher (my first small press title arrived in 2011 — which was still a lot later in life than I’d hoped) — but there is no other way. The long game is the only way to win when it comes to being a writer.
That being said, my experience with Orbit Books has been phenomenal. Everyone I’ve dealt with, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been friendly, encouraging and totally down-to-earth. My editor, Lindsey Hall, is an absolute godsend. As an editor, she’s a bloody taskmaster — rigorous, meticulous, merciless — but also incredibly supportive and kind. I really couldn’t have asked for a better inaugural experience in the world of Big Five publishing.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I try to stay on-track by writing at least five days a week, usually early in the morning before I go to work. My mind’s freshest in the morning, and if I work then, I can go through the rest of my day and tell myself, whatever may come, at least I got some writing done. I usually have a very long development phase, between the time that I get an idea and the time when I actually start working on a manuscript. I mean long — like months or years. I just like to spend a good, long while brainstorming, researching, worldbuilding and laying out possible plots before I get around to writing word one. I’m usually only actively writing one book at any given time, but I might be developing several, so that, eventually, when the book I’m working on is done and it’s time to start something new, I have several projects to choose from and can go wherever my instincts lead me.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
The first story I remember writing was something I did in the first grade, when I was about six. If I remember right, it took place in Santa’s workshop and was about how a dark crystal brought all the villainous bad guys toys in the workshop to life. So Santa’s elves had to figure out how to take back the workshop and turn these villains back into toys again. I guess that was a worthy first effort, and fairly indicative of where my imagination’s gone since then.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I don’t think there’s ever been a better time for fantasy. Between the imaginative impetus that’s forced the genre to evolve toward greater realism and moral complexity, and the increasing interest in finding more diverse voices, I think the world of fantasy and sci-fi’s as vibrant as it’s ever been.
I’m trying to take those things that fantasy readers kind of take for granted, poke them with a sharp stick and turn them upside down, and maybe provide an entirely new context for understanding them. First Watch’s human hero, Rem, is sort of a babe in the woods who arrives in the big city with a lot of assumptions and half-truths swimming in his head. It’s walking the streets and getting to know all of these factions first-hand — dwarves, elves, orcs, and even his fellow humans — that forces him to shatter those assumptions and sweep them aside.
Most of all, though, I wanted to tell a smaller story: something about everyday heroism, about doing a job, about the guys and gals who don’t get to drop everything and run off on a quest to save the world. About good and evil, right and wrong, as it’s expressed in very human terms, even though our heroes exist in a world of strange races and many gods and working magic. The fact that there is an audience for that kind of fantasy — a street-level fantasy that doesn’t sprawl across thousands and thousands of pages and hold the fate of universes in the balance — is, in itself, one of the great things about working in the genre right now.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
Right now, my priority is finishing two follow-ups for First Watch. The second book, tentatively titled Friendly Fire, is currently in progress. That’ll be followed by book three, with the working title Good Company. Beyond those, I’m not sure what comes next. I definitely have enough ideas for Rem and Torval to keep them adventuring for some time, but I’d like to play elsewhere, too. Maybe some historical fantasy. Maybe something darker, with more of a gothic, horror tinge to it. Maybe some transhumanist sci-fi. Only time will tell.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I’m just about to finish up the audiobook of Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld, which is just as thrilling and funny and brilliant as everyone says it is. Damn that man for setting the bar so high! I’d highly recommend that to all curious parties.
I’m also doing some YA reading, because I’ve got a YA concept I’m developing, so I need some categorical inspiration. On that front, I just finished In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winter — which was fantastic — and have just dipped into Asylum by Madeleine Roux.
If you could recommend only one novel to someone, what would it be?
Just one? If I’m talking to someone who specifically wants to find off-the-beaten path fantasy, I’d probably recommend Declare by Tim Powers. His particular brand of secret supernatural history is a favorite form of mine, and Declare, which interweaves a John le Carré-esque spy narrative with legends of djinn and Noah’s Ark, is pretty much the pinnacle of that form.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
Maybe that, in addition to being a big book-hoarding literary nerd, I’m also a pretty solid home chef and rabid foodie? Just as I am an inveterate collector of books — more books than I’ll probably ever get around to reading — I’m also a collector of food experiences. There aren’t enough tastes in the world — I’m always looking for something new and interesting, or for the perfect form of something I’ve already fallen in love with. Food is life. Food is love. Food is culture. Seek it out and explore it! I have a hard time trusting people who don’t have healthy and curious appetites (that’s probably a character deficiency on my part, but it’s true).
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Just seeing Rem and Torval unleashed upon the world, and finding out how people take to them. Hopefully, they’ll endear themselves to everyone they meet and gather a legion of passionate fans who will clamor for their return, again and again. But, honestly, I’ll settle for just knowing that anyone who reads First Watch feels they got their money’s worth. There are all sorts of things that a writer wants to accomplish through his or her work — from the crassly material to the spiritually transcendent — but the most basic thing you’re after is just to know that someone read what you wrote and enjoyed it.