Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Justin Call?
Justin Call – creator, storyteller, teacher, and analyst.
Actually, I’m not an analyst, but I spend more time analyzing things in a typical day than most analysts probably do in a week. I can’t help it. I analyze people, places, stories, games, social situations, and anything else that strikes my fancy. As a professional, I also write books, design and publish board games, and teach English to kids in China. I’m also a stay-at-home dad, and juggling the aforementioned jobs while watching my kiddos can be difficult (but rewarding).
Your debut novel, Master of Sorrows, is due to be published by Gollancz in February 2019. It looks really interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
It is interesting. Master of Sorrows is the first book in a tetralogy called The Silent Gods. The premise of the series is best phrased in the form of a rhetorical question (which, incidentally, is how I usually pitch the book to folks): ‘What if the prophesied hero were actually the reincarnation of an evil god? Would he save the world… or destroy it?’ If readers think long enough about that question, they’ll discover a lot of interesting themes that keep reappearing in the series such as ‘the nature of evil’ and the concept of the ‘monstrous other.’
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I’ve always been a sucker for villains and anti-heroes, which then led me to wonder at what point the hero (or anti-hero) becomes the real villain. Likewise, I love origin stories – especially when it comes to villains – and I feel like most bad guys don’t get enough page presence or screen time. I decided I wanted to write a story told from the villain’s perspective but couched with all the fantasy tropes of a more traditional coming-of-age story. I wanted to give readers a chance to really empathize with the would-be villain – to see him, not as a bad guy, but as the hero – and then I wanted to play with that sense of empathy by gradually giving the hero all the tropes we now associate with traditional fantasy villains. For those that know what to expect, it’s kind of exciting to anticipate where the story will go and when the main character will either remain idealistic or give in to his baser impulses – or, alternatively, to see when the hero’s ideals have remained the same but his actions in support of those ideals have become less heroic. It’s a delicate balance because I don’t want to alienate readers (I want them to empathize with the protagonist), but I also want to foreshadow his evolution as a character so that they keep rooting for him throughout his entire character arc.
As for inspiration, I take it from all sources: history, mythology, religious texts, board games, RPGs, classic epic fantasy (like the works of David Eddings), modern epic fantasy (like the works of Brandon Sanderson) and anything in between. I draw from anything that is praiseworthy, and I aspire to take the best from all the authors and books that I read. I also play a lot with genre tropes and expectations, so the observant reader will notice me turning tropes on their heads – like vampire origin stories or the classic wardrobe of a traditional wizard. You might even spot an occasional nod to modern culture (like NES cheat codes), but none of it’s overt. It’s just something special I bury for readers who appreciate those kinds of things.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I was first introduced to genre fiction – epic fantasy in particular – through the works of David Eddings. I had been scouting the local library for new stories (having read all of their CYOA books and their texts on mythology and folklore), and I stumbled into the fantasy section, which was tucked away behind a wall next to the periodicals. It was an eye-opening experience and, after reading numerous book blurbs, I left with Eddings’ Domes of Fire (I was fourteen at the time). Eventually I read the Tamuli series and went back to read the Elenium trilogy (I hadn’t realized the books were out of order before I checked out the book). Later, I went on to read the Belgariad and the Malloreon (also by Eddings) and I also started in on R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf Trilogy and Gary Gygax’s Gord the Rogue series. It was great. I spent entire summers laying on my trampoline reading, then I’d move to my bedroom and read some more. I read some science fiction stuff, too, but I quickly realized the high fantasy and sword & sorcery were more my cup of tea (though I do have a soft spot for vampires and other monsters).
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I love it! I’m new to it, but it’s everything I’ve ever hoped and dreamed it would be. It’s been especially gratifying to work with stellar editors and agents like Gillian Redfearn and Danny Baror, and I thank god for them both. Beyond that, I can only say that I wish I were even more involved in the industry (more writing, more book signings, more conventions, more editing, more discussions with authors and editors). I’m just thrilled to be a part of it all, and I love feeling like others value what I bring to the table (proverbially and literally). I look forward to doing more of it over the next few decades.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I try to be flexible and not let my process get too ‘precious’… but yes. There are some things that will probably always remain essential to my writing process. For one thing, I’m an outliner (this is my analytical side showing through). But I don’t just write one outline and stop. I literally write dozens and dozens of outlines before I try to tackle the actual writing. Some outlines will focus on character development. Others will look at The Hero’s Journey and whether the story feels resonant. Some outlines adopt approaches used by successful screenwriters, and some are based off the writing and outlining processes of other successful fantasy writers. I try to compile all of these notes and outlines in one place (usually Scrivener), and then I use those notes to help me organize the structure of my book, complete with its own acts and act breaks, chapters, and beats. I examine every major character’s arc and make sure it is gratifying and resonant. I also keep a list of notes that remind me what readers are expecting, what I’ve promised my publisher, and what I’ve promised myself.
And then I write! The drafting phase is usually done in Scrivener, but I’m more likely to write on my iPad or iPhone (sometimes using an external keyboard, sometimes not). If I’m feeling stuck or want to get away from all my notes and research (they can get overwhelming even while I rely on them), then I’ll retreat someplace with my AlphaSmart Neo word processor and crank out some distraction-free writing that way. When I’m done, I save the whole thing as a PDF and use my iPad and magic pencil to make editing and revision notes. Doing it this way prevents me from getting too into the weeds in the search of the perfect word choice. When that’s done, I’ll switch over to my Macbook and do most of my future editing and revising there, first using Scrivener (again) and eventually moving over to MS Word so that my editor can see tracked changes.
I like listening to epic music playlists when I write, but it’s not essential (more often I write in silence or with the white noise of a café or a gym lobby surrounding me). I’m also realistic enough to know that, if I wait for the write time or place, I won’t meet my deadlines, so I make time when I have it (kids are a big part of the equation). Consequently, I spend a lot of my revision process stuck at my standing desk, often sleeping only 1-3 hours a night.
It’s difficult, but it’s worth it (things that are easy usually aren’t).
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?
I had an auspicious beginning. As memory goes, when I was about four or five years old, I dictated a story to my mother, which she then typed up. I’m not sure why (I always thought it was for a preschool assignment, but that seems bizarre in retrospect). When she finished typing the story, I illustrated the ‘book’ and my grandfather paid to have four copies printed and bound. The book was called Trick, the Good Bad Turkey and was (unsurprisingly) about a turkey who played tricks on his barnyard friends. That set the path for me. For the rest of my childhood, I believed I was good at telling stories (I was), and I capitalized on that throughout grade school and high school. In sixth grade, I had an assignment to write a five page creative writing story. Again, I wrote a mini-novel (something closer to 30 pages). I also wasn’t punished for writing a longer story, and that sort of foreshadows my love for truly epic fantasy novels.
It wasn’t till I was sixteen, though, that I knew I wanted to be a writer. I even started writing the next ‘great American novel,’ but I stopped after writing only a few chapters because I sensed that I was lacking a better education in creative arts. I steadily acquired one throughout college and graduate school, and I haven’t deviated from my goals since then.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I’m actually very excited about what’s happening in fantasy today. A long time ago, you could write anything speculative and people loved it. Then Tolkien took off and, for a very long time, it seemed only one kind of story was being told. I wasn’t alive for any of that, but I felt the ripples and echoes from it. To be clear, I enjoyed reading high fantasy, but I also sensed I was missing something – a bigger perspective – which I had experienced while reading CYOA (Choose-Your-Own-Adventure) books as a tween. Eddings and Gygax and Salvatore also reminded me there were different kinds of fantasy novels out there, and that led me to Robert Jordan and other modern writers.
Throughout it all, I kept running into fantasy novels where the heroes felt a little too heroic – characters who were whitewashed and felt inauthentic – and I had a visceral reaction against such fiction. I also didn’t like villains who felt like caricatures (though that didn’t stop me from enjoying their stories). So when I started building the mythology for my own series (many years ago), I knew that was going to play a big part. I think other fantasy authors felt that way, too, because in the last decade there has been a huge surge in the number of Grimdark authors – a term which did not exist ten years ago. I consider Grimdark a branch of sword & sorcery fantasy (which I still love), and so I’ve taken a liking to a lot of Grimdark authors and their works (Mark Lawrence, Ed McDonald, and Joe Abercrombie in particular).
But I’m not technically a Grimdark author. I like my fiction to be gritty and have real consequences, but at my heart I’m still a dyed-in-the-wool, epic fantasy guy. And while I might bring together elements of Grimdark and high fantasy (similar to George R.R. Martin), I’m nowhere near as polarizing as GRRM because I’m still writing for that fourteen-year-old boy who stumbled into the fantasy section at his local library. I’m also writing for the 36-year-old version of myself who craves something old-but-new, classic-yet-novel in their fantasy reading. So while my books are often classified as Young Adult, I think that’s an oversimplification due to the fact that my protagonist starts out as a 17-year-old kid. Could teens read my books? Undoubtedly – I’ve had 9-year-olds read them – but I’ve also had older fantasy veterans read and enjoy my books. So they really are for everybody – just like Sanderson and Eddings are for everyone – but my books also carry a hint of that grit that is currently popular in the Grimdark genre.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently writing book two of The Silent Gods tetralogy (the sequel to Master of Sorrows), and after that I’ll be doing the next two books in the series.
But the series won’t end there. I’ve got two more tetralogies in mind (assuming people want to read more from that world), and I’ve got dozens of other things I’d like to try my hand at in the near-to-far future, including a children’s book series and a sci-fi noir series. Those may still remain as ideas since I’m content living in the epic fantasy genre forever, but I do like to try new things. I’m also an itinerant board-and-card game publisher, so when the first tetralogy is finished I may take a hiatus for a few months and produce some games I’ve had to put on hold.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I listen to a lot of audiobooks, so right now I am listening to a couple, which I’ll switch between depending on my mood. One of those is Killing Floor, the first novel in the Jack Reacher series, which I was turned on to because my parents are big fans and they share my audible account. I’ve also been listening to Ed McDonald’s Raven’s Mark trilogy (I believe the third book comes out this year) and Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books. When I am feeling nostalgic, I’ll re-read some Sanderson, Eddings, or Rothfuss.
As for hard copies, I usually limit reading those because I can become obsessed about finishing the book (to the detriment of my family and my own writing). I make an exception for friends’ books, and I recently made a second exception with Mark Lawrence’s Grey Sister (Red Sister was great).
For non-fiction, I read weird stuff like how to properly butcher an animal or re-upholster furniture. I also read a lot of books on writing and listen to podcasts (Writing Excuses being my favorite).
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
My own book, probably. Also, the dictionary.
Okay, okay. This is a very cruel question since people’s tastes vary so widely. Also, since I’m an epic fantasy writer, I’m prone to recommending a series over a single book (like Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy). So if I can only recommend one novel or book, it would either be William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (for its clever prose, winsome sense of adventure, and breaking the fourth wall) or Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic (for telling a fantastic story and brilliantly tackling deep issues through the use of a non-traditional medium).
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I wrote most of the first draft of Master of Sorrows on my iPhone while riding the bus to and from work. The rest was written at home (late into the night) and while working at the reception desk for the Office of the President at Harvard University. The latter was a very interesting experience, given the range of people that come through that office, and I’ve got some crazy stories to tell. I loved it, though. I also loved delivering pizzas for Domino’s in college – I was a damn good driver; usually I’d drop off your pizza 8.5 minutes after you hung up (yeah, you read that right).
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Reviews for Master of Sorrows (it’s had a long gestation period, and you never know how well a book will do until it’s out in the wild), attending Gollancz Fest in London this August and WorldCon in Dublin as a published author (YASSSSSS!), seeing my book launch here in the U.S. this fall, and finishing the final draft of Book 2 (tentatively titled Master of the Forge).
At the top of that list, though, is getting to introduce myself as an actual author. In my heart, I’ve always been one (since I was five!), but I’ve never been able to point to a book on the shelf and say: ‘There it is. Go buy a copy and leave a review on Goodreads.’ Publishing a board game was a dream achieved, but publishing my first novel? Words can’t express how excited I am.
Justin Call’s Master of Sorrows is due to be published by Gollancz on February 21st, 2019.