D.B. Jackson (also known to fantasy readers as David B. Coe) is an Award-winning author of fifteen published novels. He’s currently on a book signing tour to promote the newly released A Plunder of Souls, third in the Thieftaker Chronicles, and will be at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books and Music on Monday, July 21st, at 7:30pm. Jackson is a frequent visitor in the Carolinas, including the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop, ConCarolinas in Charlotte, and most recently, ConGregate in Winston-Salem. Here, Jackson is interviewed by Durham writer Margaret McGraw about the Thieftaker Chronicles with Tor Books, and his next big project, the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy series with Baen Books.
[Interview by Margaret S. McGraw]
MM: Let’s talk about the Thieftaker Chronicles, beginning with Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry. The third book, A Plunder of Souls, was just released this month. You’ve blazed a trail in the subgenre of historical urban fantasy. How did that come about?
DJ: I call the Thieftaker Chronicles historical urban fantasy because the novels combine elements of historical fiction, fantasy, and mystery. The books are set in pre-Revolutionary Boston, and each plot line coincides with some significant historical event leading toward the American Revolution. My lead character is a conjurer who can cast a wide array of spells. And he is also a thieftaker, the eighteenth century equivalent of a private detective, so each novel also revolves around the investigation of a murder or other grisly crime. So there is a historical element, a magical element, and a mystery element: historical urban fantasy.
MM: And how about the buzzphrase “Tricorn Punk”?
DJ: That was a phrase I came up with at DragonCon a few years ago. Because there is a historical element to my work, I wound up on a bunch of Steampunk panels, and felt a bit like a fish out of water, since I really don’t write Steampunk. And so, as a joke I started calling my work Tricorn Punk, and the phrase stuck.
MM: You do spend a lot of time in the Carolinas, between the SWWC, ConCarolinas, ConGregate, and book signings. What draws you here?
DJ: Part of the appeal of the Carolinas for me is the concentration of wonderful writers who also happen to be my friends. Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, A.J. Hartley, Edmund Schubert, John Hartness, James Tuck, Carrie Ryan, Gail Martin, Stuart Jaffe — I’m sure I’m leaving out someone important. These are some of my very favorite people in the business. And more to the point, they are part of an incredibly rich and deep community of Carolina writers; I don’t have a community quite like that in Middle Tennessee, where I live. Add to that the fact that the fans I’ve met at the conventions I attend in the Carolinas are avid, discerning readers, and, many of them, talented aspiring writers, and it makes this region that much more attractive. It really is my adopted creative home.
MM: “D.B. Jackson” is an “open secret” pen name for David B. Coe. What’s the rationale behind it, and how do you manage maintaining two professional identities?
DJ: Coming up with the pseudonym for the Thieftaker books was a branding decision. David B. Coe books have, up until now, been big fat epic, alternate world fantasies. (I say up until now because I’m writing a new contemporary, urban fantasy for Baen Books under that name.) The Thieftaker books, with their real-world, historical setting, and noir tone, are very different. So the folks at Tor suggested — and I agreed — that it made sense to write the books under a different name. I also felt that while we would certainly be attracting a somewhat different audience, we might also be able to bring over some David B. Coe readers, and so we kept the new ‘nym an open secret, as it were.
Maintaining the two identities does require a bit of work. D.B. Jackson and David B. Coe have separate blogs, separate Facebook and Twitter accounts — stuff like that. And keeping those active can be time consuming. But because I don’t need to keep the two identities totally separate, there can be some bleed from one to the other. I can do signings as both names, I can appear at cons as both. And that makes it somewhat easier.
MM: One of your biggest projects over the past few years has been MagicalWords.net. How did that come about, and what has it accomplished?
DJ: Magical Words is a blog devoted to the craft and business of writing that Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, and I founded in January 2008. We all met the previous fall at the Annual Conference of the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop, and hit it off immediately. We decided at the conference that we wanted to collaborate on some kind of project, and, since we were at a teaching conference, it made sense that we should do something that involved helping aspiring writers in some way. The site has evolved over the nearly seven years we’ve been working on it, and we have brought in many other writers to work with us, sometimes as occasional guests, sometimes as regular contributors. We’ve even put out a Magical Words book (How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion, from Bella Rosa Books). The site has attracted a terrific readership of talented aspiring writers, and it has allowed the three of us to work with some wonderful writers. It truly is a labor of love.
MM: I’m always fascinated by what “sparks” story ideas for authors. Where do your story ideas come from?
DJ: That’s a difficult question to answer, mostly because ideas for different projects come from different places. I got the idea for the Thieftaker books from reading a footnote in a history book that mentioned thieftakers in London in the early 18th century. The idea for my Winds of the Forelands series started with my visualization of a single scene, which eventually appeared in the first book in that series, Rules of Ascension. My first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, began with an idea for my magic system.
Various short stories have originated in a wide variety of ways. Like most writers, my mind is constantly churning away, looking at fairly ordinary things and asking questions that begin with those truly magical words, “What if . . . ?” I find that I can’t force ideas to come. I can’t simply sit down and say, “Today I’m going to come up with a new idea for a new series.” I have to wait for that creative lightning to strike. And strike it does. I don’t worry about running out of ideas; I have plenty. My fear is that I won’t have enough time to write them all.
MM: You frequently integrate your love of nature and birdwatching, studying history, and even playing music into your stories. How purposefully do you do this?
DJ: You often hear writers say “Write what you know,” and usually I take that to mean something fairly narrow. I write fantasy: on some level I can’t write what I know because what I’m writing doesn’t exist in our world. So for me writing what I know most often means drawing upon emotional experiences to make my characters’ reactions to successes and setbacks read as more authentic. We all have experienced sadness, elation, confusion, excitement, love, jealousy, and a whole host of other emotions. We can draw on those when we write our character reactions.
But occasionally we also get to fit little bits of our lives into our work, and that is always tons of fun. So yes, I love history; I have a Ph.D. in U.S. History. And with the Thieftaker books I have been able to blend my passion for history with my love of fantasy by using pre-Revolutionary Boston as the setting for my novels. Each book is set against the backdrop of a different historical event leading to the Revolution, and fitting my fictional elements into real historical events is incredibly fun.
I’ve been an avid birdwatcher since I was seven years old, and in the LonTobyn books, I used my love of birds, in particular birds of prey, to create the magic system I mentioned earlier. My characters drew their magic from the psychic bond they forged with hawks, eagles, and owls. I also play guitar and sing, and I used that love of music in the Winds of the Forelands books by making my assassin, Cadel Nistaad, an accomplished singer. That was his “cover” when stalking his victims. So I have found ways to use my expertise in certain areas to “write what I know.”
MM: Your characters are often complex, and sometimes you make it downright difficult to like your heroes—or at least their actions. Are you just being contrary, or what can you tell us about why you choose to write them in these ways?
DJ: Well, I’m certainly capable of being contrary. But really I’m just trying to create characters who are as complex and rich and believable as the real people in our lives. With Tavis, the hero in my Forelands books, I was trying to be a bit contrary. I wanted to start him off as a spoiled brat, a young prince who cares more about himself than his land or his people. And then I wanted to make him grow and change in a gradual, convincing way so that by the end of the series my readers would like him, despite themselves.
Ethan Kaille, the hero of the Thieftaker books, isn’t unlikable; I made him broken, dark, and somewhat moody. Mostly, though, I made him complicated. He has lived a difficult life: he’s been a prisoner, forced to labor on a sugar plantation. He lost his first love, he lost a bright future, and he was physically maimed as well. And yet he endures. He’s a survivor and he is determined to build a new life for himself.
The larger point is that he has lived what seems like a real life, and I think that my readers respond to him because his travails read as authentic, and his determination is that much more admirable for that realism.
MM: What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened to you as a writer?
DJ: Oh, probably getting my first book sale. I had been so eager for that sale for so long, and I was pretty convinced that it would never happen. I’m a positive thinker that way . . . My wife, I should note, always knew that I would make it as a writer. Anyway, getting that first contract, and a bit later getting that first tiny little check, were unbelievably thrilling. I remember when I learned that the contract was on its way I sent a telegram to my parents, who were on vacation. They later called me, and were pretty thrilled themselves.
MM: What’s next for Ethan? What else are you working on now?
DJ: The fourth Thieftaker book, Dead Man’s Reach, should be out next summer, and while I don’t want to give away too much about the book, I can tell you a few things. The story takes place in February and March 1770, in the weeks leading up to the Boston Massacre. An unknown conjurer has found a way to take control of Ethan’s magic and use it to feed the tensions and violence around him. So he has a pretty direct involvement in the events.
I’m very happy with how the first draft of the book has come out. It was a challenge, because this book is more integrated with historical events than any of the other Thieftaker novels — which is saying something. And it worked really well.
I’m also working on a new contemporary urban fantasy for Baen Books, called the Case Files of Justis Fearsson. The first book, Spell Blind, will be out in January 2015. I’ve just turned in the first draft of the second book, and I will be writing the third book soon.
MM: Where will you be – in person and online – this summer?
DJ: Well, I have a small signing tour in the Carolinas and Virginia, including the one at Quail Ridge Bookstore in Raleigh on Monday, June 21st, and I also have a couple of con appearances planned, including GenCon and DragonCon. And I have a bunch of blog stops planned in the next couple of weeks. Folks can find a listing of my in-person appearances and my blog tour virtual appearances on my website.
About the interviewer: Margaret S. McGraw’s imagination draws on her lifelong love of science fiction, fantasy, and anthropology. Her education and experience range from anthropology and communication through web design and IT management. Margaret lives in North Carolina with her daughter and an array of cats, dogs, Macs and PCs, and too many unfinished craft projects. Her writing includes Writers’ Spark, a daily prompt-writing blog with over 500 posts, several short stories currently in circulation for publication, and two novels in progress: Mira’s Children is a YA science fiction adventure, and OceanSong is a fantasy begun in the 2012 NaNoWriMo challenge. For more details on her writing, follow her on Twitter @margaretsmcgraw or on her daily blog at WritersSpark.com.