The Hardest Part: James Maxey on Bad Wizard

Hillsborough author James Maxey is the author of superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn, two epic fantasy series (Bitterwood and The Dragon Apocalypse), and a short fiction collection There Is No Wheel. Here he writes about his new novel Bad Wizard, the story of Dorothy Gale ten years after she returns from Oz. “Oz” has been fertile ground for authors to poke around in, from Gregory Maguire’s Wicked to John Kessel’s The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Geoff Ryman’s Was, and Maxey’s zeppelin-flying take brings something a little different to all of them. Maxey will host a launch party for the novel tonight, Wednesday, November 5th at the Orange County Library, at 6:30 pm. To hear more about Maxey and his books, you can also check out a podcast of his interview on Monday on Carolina Book Beat.

UPDATE: Nov. 11, 2014: Bad Wizard is currently featured as a Countdown deal, on sale for $0.99 for the next 12 hours or so, slowly increasing in price until it’s back at its regular $5.99.

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By James Maxey:

Bad Wizard is the story of Dorothy Gale ten years after she returns from Oz. She’s now a reporter for the Kansas Ear, investigating the United States Secretary of War, Oscar Zoroaster Diggs—the man she met in the Emerald City who called himself the Wizard. Diggs returned from Oz with his suit stuffed full of high quality emeralds and instantly became the richest man in Kansas. His fortune and charisma swiftly propelled him to political power, and now, as Teddy Roosevelt’s most trusted adviser, he’s overseeing the construction of a fleet of rigid airships to spread democracy around the world. Of course, Dorothy knows his real motive. But how can she explain to her editor that Diggs is secretly planning to invade an invisible island in the sky ruled by witches? Stopping Diggs is going to take the help of her silver slippers, old friends, and maybe a Winged Monkey as she chases Diggs across the weird and deadly landscape of Oz.

The easy part of writing Bad Wizard was the villain.

The Wizard in the Wizard of Oz manages to come across as a kindly old man who’s bluffed his way into a position of power that’s over his head and is now terrified of being exposed. When Dorothy tells him in the book, “You’re a very bad man,” he tells her, no, he’s really a very good man, he’s just a very bad wizard. I’m sorry, but I don’t by it. An 11-year-old girl came to him lost and afraid and wanting to go home. Instead of saying, “Poor thing, let me go fire up my balloon,” he decides to get her out of his hair by sending her off to kill one of his most dangerous enemies. In the real world, recruiting children to wage war gets you branded a war criminal. The fact that the Wizard can smile and wink his way out of such a massive crime, earning the trust of Dorothy and her friends despite his obvious lies, is kind of chilling. But, I see in Diggs parallel figures in the real world. The political landscape, both today and historically, is rife with people who could commit the most horrible atrocities and yet still be thought of as great and virtuous men. In my book Diggs is likable, even admirable. He’s generous with his underlings, full of praise for their accomplishments, skillful at making them feel like patriots and noble warriors. I have a lot of fun crafting plausible lies for him to explain the magical sights of Oz. When the Winged Monkeys attack his airship, he tells the men they shouldn’t be surprised, after all, they’ve heard of flying squirrels haven’t they? They’ve seen bats, right? Certainly there are other flying mammals in the world. When his pilot protests that the monkeys are wearing hats, Diggs shrugs and says, “Perhaps they’re pets.” But, while it was fun to write Diggs as a charming scoundrel, I never forget his true villainy, and craft a rather thorough back story to explain how a man could become so ruthless and indifferent to the suffering of others. I think readers will find him to be a satisfying, fleshed out antagonist.

Then there was Dorothy. I don’t know how many people reading this have read the original Wizard of Oz, but it’s fair to say that Dorothy’s characterization in those pages is somewhat thin. I’m not sure I could pin a single personality trait upon her. She’s mostly a passive observer of the strangeness of Oz. So, the hardest part of writing Bad Wizard was imbuing Dorothy with a personality. Making her a reporter was an easy choice. I figured that, having been betrayed by a powerful authority figure as a child, she’d grow up skeptical of people in high office. Plus, the era of the story, at the dawn of the twentieth century, was a time when the press really started fighting back against the rampant political corruption of the age. A lot of champions of reform were branded anarchists and atheists, and Dorothy gets painted with the same brush by Diggs. She’s no anarchist, but she is an atheist. Her experiences in Oz as a child have left her doubting the narrative of reality put forward by most religions. She’s an intellectual seeker, trying to find a philosophical framework for the magic she’s witnessed that allows her to remain a rational human being. On a more personal level, Dorothy was engaged to a fellow reporter, Theo Derecho, who died under mysterious circumstances while investigating Diggs. Dorothy is convinced that Diggs had Theo murdered, but can find no hard proof. Still, her battle to bring Diggs to justice is a deeply personal one.

My difficulty in the first draft was that Dorothy was bitter. Her bitterness was understandable, but it dampened her effectiveness as a protagonist. It left her as a reactive personality, rather than as a proactive, positive figure. I needed to soften her, to make her more than just a walking grudge. Luckily, the Oz mythology provided me with a few tools to work with. First, she has friends. Once she’s in Oz with the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion, her affection for them helps round out her character. Second, she has Toto. Her concern and care for Toto show early in the book that she’s still capable of kinder emotions. The fact that she’s incredibly brave defending her friends also makes her more likable. Getting readers to connect with her emotionally is important, but I also wanted them to admire her intellectually. So, my Dorothy is brainy. She’s used her silver slippers to travel the world. She’s an avid reader, with her tiny apartment heaped high with books. She quotes the great thinkers of her era and is able to go head to head with Diggs in arguments about morality. The Dorothy of the original novel gets swept along by events. The Dorothy in Bad Wizard drives events. Hopefully, I’ve managed the balancing act of making her forceful and opinionated without making her overbearing.

Bad Wizard was my first time writing characters I didn’t create. Keeping the characters recognizable as familiar pop culture icons while putting my own strange spin on them was a challenge. Of course, the challenge made it fun to write. With any luck, it should also be fun to read.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Maxey’s mother warned him if he read too many comic books, they would warp his mind. She was right. Now an adult who can’t stop daydreaming, James is unsuited for decent work and ekes out a pittance writing down demented fantasies about masked women, fiery dragons, and monkeys. Oh god, so many monkeys.

​In an effort to figure out how Superman could fly, James read a lot of science, books by Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking. Turns out, Superman probably wasn’t based on any factual information. Who would have guessed? Realizing it was possible to write science fiction without being constrained by the actual rules of science proved liberating for James, and led to the psuedo-science fiction of the Bitterwood series, superhero novels like Nobody Gets the Girl, and the steam-punk visions of Bad Wizard.

​James lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his lovely and patient wife Cheryl and too many cats.

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2 Responses to The Hardest Part: James Maxey on Bad Wizard

  1. Nick Chopper says:

    Better than “Dorothy Must Die” I say

  2. Pingback: November newsletter: Garth Stein and NC Specualtive Fiction Night, and (in December) Julia Elliott and Fred Chappell | Bull Spec

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