James Maxey first came to the attention of science fiction readers with his Phobos-winning story "Empire of Dreams and Miracles," published in the anthology of the same name in 2002. It was followed the next year by his first novel, Nobody Gets the Girl. More recent credits include a second Phobos winner, "Earl Billings and the Angels of the Lord," and the short story "Perhaps the Snail," which appears in Nick Mamatas' The Urban Bizarre.
Luc Reid: I'm curious about your decision to write your first published novel, Nobody Gets the Girl, because it's set in a world where a number of characters have superhuman powers. What was in your mind when you wrote that book? Did you have any concerns that the subject might prevent it being published?
James Maxey: I wrote Nobody Gets the Girl almost as a dare to myself. In November 2000, I was thinking about what I should do to celebrate the real new millennium. I had the idea of starting a novel and finishing it on January 1, 2001, so I could claim that I'd written the first novel of the new millennium. Once I decided to write a novel, I had to choose which one to write. I had two main contenders—a straightforward, wizards vs. dragons fantasy novel, or a science fiction novel set on a terraformed Venus. I also had this superhero novel kicking around, but the odds of finding a home for a superhero novel seemed very slim. All the superhero books in bookstores were based on existing characters like Batman or the X-Men, or shared world projects like Wild Cards.
But when I sat down to start writing on November 15, all the scenes that kept popping into my head were from the superhero novel. The characters were shouting dialogue back and forth at me. So I figured, what the hell, I'm only going to spend 45 days on this project. I decided to write it for my own amusement, and not even try to publish it. Writing with no hope of publishing opened some kind of floodgate.
I kept having ideas faster than I could write them. I carried 3x5 cards with me everywhere and jotted down snippets of conversation and other story fragments. I'd write while I was driving. I'd jump out of the shower to jot down notes. I'd wake up in the morning and find all these cryptic scribbles next to my bed. Sex on brother's grave? There's already a cat in the box? Ferrokinesis? I'd interpret the notes as best I could and shuffle them into the growing pile. The note cards became my rolling outline for the novel. I wrote almost every night for 45 days.
Alas, I screwed up and finished on December 31, ahead of schedule. I printed out a dozen copies of the manuscript at Kinko's then went to a New Year's Eve party and handed them out. I had done zero editing. These were raw first drafts. And I was done with the novel. I didn't even look at it. For a full year, I had a book I had written but never read. All of my early readers kept telling me it was a great story, but I didn't see any point in putting effort into editing an unpublishable novel. Then, almost exactly a year later, I won a Phobos award. Keith Olexa, the Phobos book editor, asked if I had any novels sitting in a drawer. I dug out the manuscript, did a quick edit, and sent it off. The manuscript I considered unpublishable became my first published novel.
LR: Winning Phobos that first time seems to have brought you to Phobos' attention in a big way.* Since then you've been a Phobos winner again for 2003, sold an additional story to the first Phobos non-contest anthology, and in fact three Phobos anthologies have been named for James Maxey stories—stories that are pretty varied in theme and sub-genre, I might add. Do these works have anything in common?
JM: Good titles! One of my teachers at Odyssey was Harlan Ellison, who put a lot of importance on making the title of your story a hook. It doesn't matter if you have the strongest opening paragraph ever written if your story appears under a generic title like, "The Journey." The three Phobos books that will have titles I've penned are Empire of Dreams and Miracles, Nobody Gets the Girl, and Absolutely Brilliant in Chrome. All the titles are, I hope, eye-catching and memorable.
As to common elements in the stories, I think a "James Maxey" story is pretty easy to recognize. The stories will usually have misfit protagonists. My heroes are often perverts, terrorists, or junkies. Usually, my stories will have a comic tone. I tend to dive headlong into weirdness. But I also like to think that even when I'm writing about these characters on the fringe, readers find something to identify with.
Rail Blade, from Nobody Gets the Girl, is a good example. She's a dead-serious soldier, willing to kill without batting an eye. By the end of the book she's flattened an entire city and killed untold thousands. She's been warped by a father who's molded her into a weapon since early childhood. Even her name is hard and sinister. She's a difficult character to like, yet readers fall in love with her. Other superhero origin stories focus on how the heroes gained their powers. I explore instead the origins of her emotional landscape. By the end of the story, you understand why she is who she is. Hopefully, the ending also gives her some measure of redemption and closure.
LR: Why misfits and depraved types? Are you consciously choosing to write about these kinds of protagonists, or is that just the way they come to you?
JM: This is a tough question to answer without sounding melodramatic. Oh, the agony I endured as a child! The isolation and loneliness drove me mad I tell you, MAD!
But, introspection and honesty are two important traits for any writer, and I think it does trace back to my childhood. I was raised in a fundamentalist household. Our church was one where people spoke in tongues. Prayers were not quiet moments of reflection. During prayers, people could be possessed by the Spirit, and suddenly start babbling incoherently. Other people would then begin interpreting the babble, spouting apocalyptic prophecies of the ever quickening end-of-days. Young men would leap up and run around the church on the back of pews. Women would faint. The preacher would pound the podium and spit as he shouted about the torments of Hell.
And, at a very early age, perhaps 8 or 10, I found myself on the wrong side. I'm not talking about simple skepticism—I reached the conclusion early on that God was an unfair, sadistic bully. Hell sounded awful, but Heaven didn't sound like such a great deal either. We were told that in Heaven we would praise God eternally, sing his name, bask in his glory. It sounded, to my youthful ears, that God was one insecure ego-maniac who wanted to populate Heaven with a bunch of suck-ups. And the rules for getting into Heaven and Hell were arbitrary and unfair. You could live a kind, honest life, be a good neighbor, serve your community as a fire-fighter or police officer or surgeon—and it didn't matter. You were headed to Hell unless you got on board with the repentance thing. The whole human race was punished for one person's slip up.
It was like when the teacher would punish an entire class because one person threw a paper airplane—worse, she punished every class that ever came after that, and the only way to get off her shit list was to confess to having plane throwing in your heart, even if you didn't. You wouldn't think of that teacher as a fountain of justice and love. Conversely, you could be a lying, murdering, dope-smoking rapist, and as long as you cried out to God and told him you were sorry in that final second before they pulled the switch on the electric chair, you were Heaven-bound. In the church I grew up in, Hell was populated by people like Mother Teresa and Gandhi while Heaven had an inordinate number of death row convicts nicknamed Mad Dog.
So week after week I'd be sitting in church, actively choosing the Devil's side—not that I would ever say anything. Luckily, I was an avid comic book reader, which lead me to be an active science fiction reader, which brought me to reading actual books of science by people like Carl Sagan. The choice no longer seemed to be between God and the Devil, but between God and no-God. So, by my early teens, I wound up as the only atheist in a room full of people speaking in tongues. I felt like the ultimate misfit.
But once I left home and went to college, a strange thing happened. I discovered that, to most of the world, it was the people in my church who were oddities. Mainstream Christianity didn't embrace speaking in tongues, or having a truck driver's wife stand up in the middle of a sermon and give prophecies of the second coming. The straight world regarded the people I'd been surrounded by as weirdos.
But, to me, these weirdos really seemed much more interesting. I went to a few "normal" churches, and couldn't believe them. The sermons ended at noon, instead of dragging out three or four hours. There was no shouting, no spitting or fainting. The hymns were contemplative and rehearsed, not the thrashy punk gospel that had been banged out on the pianos of my youth. To this day, I feel like the Pentecostal, fundamentalist church of my childhood had it right—if you're going to worship God, do it with both barrels. I'm attracted to people who believe things so deeply they will shout and foam at the mouth. These are the kind of people I most enjoy writing about. My characters are always in ecstatic pursuit of Heaven and wide-eyed terror of Hell (at least metaphorically—few of my stories are overtly religious). I have very little interest in a character who sits quietly in a pew and thinks about what a swell fellow Jesus was. I write about people who love things so deeply it wrecks their ability to live an easy life.
LR: Do science fiction and fantasy give you more latitude for creating these kinds of characters and situations? Or is the affinity for the fantastic more personal preference and less a writing tool?
JM: I didn't start out writing science fiction—the first novel I launched into was a "literary" novel where characters wandered around spouting off boring speeches about the meaning of life. It was embarrassingly bad. A: I didn't know anything about the craft of storytelling then and B: I didn't know anything about the meaning of life, either. A friend of mine read it and gave me the strongest critique I've ever gotten. He told me that the novel read like it had been written by someone who had never read a novel. And, since college, he was almost right. I'd had little time in college to read for pleasure. After college, I occasionally struggled through "serious" books like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, but I didn't dare waste my time reading, you know, "genre" fiction. That was for low-brows and slow teenagers.
So his comment really stung, because before college I'd read one or two novels a week, almost all science fiction and fantasy. I also loved media tie-in novels, all the superhero novels of the late seventies, Star Trek and Star Wars books, etc. I had a moment of epiphany—I loved reading science fiction and fantasy, and had foolishly allowed myself to be brainwashed in pursuit of an English major. They say write what you know, but it's also important to write what you love, and I loved science fiction.
LR: Why science fiction? What drew you to that as opposed to, say, mystery or horror or coming-of-age novels that hinge on shameful family secrets?
JM: Again, the answer lies in my religious upbringing. I understand fully why religious fundamentalists work so hard to remove any mention of evolution from school. Despite bland assurances from some scientists that belief in evolution doesn't preclude a belief in God, I'm hard pressed to understand how anyone ever reconciles the two. Obviously, many people do. But science makes a pretty convincing argument that for 99% of the span of life on Earth, mankind was not around. And it also presents ironclad evidence that the universe is unimaginably vast—and empty. To believe in a God that created the universe and the Earth is possible only if we make the assumption that the human race just isn't all that important to Him. After all, we occupy the briefest possible instant of time on the tiniest mote of dust in space. The scale of science renders us miniscule, if the universe is God's handiwork. I think, in religious terms, the idea of being so inconsequential given the scale of the universe is difficult to deal with.
But science fiction takes the same information and treats it as the fuel of creativity. Rather than bemoan our tiny speck in space, science fiction writers look at the galaxy as a source for a million exotic worlds and uncountable races of aliens. In science fiction, the universe is downright crowded. And rather than fretting about the tiny tick of time we get as humans, science fiction treats time as a plaything—men can hunt dinosaurs, or build enormous machines out of the future husk of our dead sun. In many ways, science fiction is just as unscientific as religion, but with one huge underlying difference. Science fiction doesn't make a moral judgment on your soul should you choose to believe or disbelieve FTL drives, or time machines, or bug-eyed aliens. And rather than asking you to believe in, say, Heaven purely on faith, if a science fiction writer wants to make you believe in Heaven, he'll put in the work of building a plausible scenario for such a place to exist. Faith is for the lazy.
Religious fundamentalists try to get around the conflict between religious doctrine and scientific evidence by disproving the science, attacking all evidence of evolution or an ancient universe as fraud and conspiracy. Science fiction writers get around inconvenient scientific facts with exuberant creativity. This is science fiction after all. Good science fiction writers swagger when they lie. The sheer arrogance of the best science fiction appeals to me.
LR: Veteran writers are often asked if they have any advice for new writers. As a newer writer, relatively speaking, do you have any advice for long-time pros?
JM: I wouldn't presume to offer advice to long-time pros. I have tremendous admiration for anyone who's made a living in this tough business. I even admire people who've failed to make a living, yet kept on writing. And the more I learn about writing and publishing, the more I realize that ultimately, most advice is useless. Everyone has their own unique path to success. There's no right or wrong way to go about it.
LR: Who were some of your favorite authors as you were growing up, and would you count any of them as influences on your own writing? What are you reading now?
JM: Around 16, I discovered Harlan Ellison, and attempted to read every word he wrote. I also discovered Patrick F. McManus around this time, a writer of outdoor humor. McManus' stories would make me laugh until my face hurt. My twin love of humor and science fiction merged when I read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—probably as close to a perfect book as any I've ever read. In non-fiction, I loved Carl Sagan. His book Dragons of Eden was a huge influence in shaping my worldview.
My reading today continues to be eclectic. I just finished volume three of Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe. It's a phone-book sized comic that covers the years from 600 A.D. to 1400 A.D. Right now I'm reading David Sedaris's collection of essays and stories, Naked.
The science fiction author I'm most excited about at present is Adam Connell. Phobos is releasing his debut novel Counterfeit Kings this spring. I've read an advance copy and it's astonishing—fast-paced, plausible, hard science fiction, set on colonies in orbit around Jupiter. Connell's imagined a future where people are living in fairly cramped quarters and space ships, with only thin shells between them and the void of space. The claustrophobia and stress have warped everyone—good guys and bad guys alike. The cover for the book shows a flayed human face, and in many ways Connell has replicated this unpeeling of skin in the text of the book. He digs deep into the darkest corners of his character's minds, then somehow manages to dig a little deeper, and a little deeper, until the bones of the character's personalities are revealed. It's probably the best novel I've read in five years.
JM: Odyssey and Boot Camp complemented each other nicely in my growth as a writer. Odyssey is a six-week class with several guest teachers. You get to submit several stories, and you do intensive daily critiquing. The downside for the format is that you wind up getting lots of contradictory advice and contradictory feedback on your stories. Six weeks is also long enough for rivalries and cliques to form. When I left Odyssey, I honestly felt more lost than ever, and less sure that a career in writing was even possible. But six weeks isn't enough time to digest the things you learn.
The value of Odyssey really started to come for me about a year later, when I sat down and wrote "Empire of Dreams and Miracles." John Crowley had given an interesting lecture on POV at Odyssey, where he said that writers needed to learn to write in "the voice of the story." And when I was writing "Empire of Dreams and Miracles," I understood what he meant. I had written perhaps 40 short stories by this point, but "Empire" was the first one where I feel like I as a writer vanished and the story flowed out with its own unique cadence and vocabulary. To this day, I feel like all my best writing has this quality of "voice."
So, about a year after Odyssey, I was starting to write the stuff I've since seen published. But, I had zero confidence in my own work. I seldom submitted anything I wrote. Nothing ever seemed finished and polished enough. Fortunately three years after Odyssey, I attended Boot Camp. Card was marvelous at sweeping up all the contradictory advice I had floating around in my head and helping me shape it into one overall philosophy of writing. He gave me courage and confidence to get back into the submissions whirlwind.
I think the sequence I took the two classes in, and the span of time between them, was just right.
LR: What's next for you?
JM: I'm really excited about my ongoing project to develop an army of super-monkeys to take over the world. But, really, that's a secret. This is off the record, right?
Upcoming Changes at Phobos Books
Phobos Books formed in 2001 and immediately began searching out new writers like James Maxey, especially through its annual science fiction short story contest. To date it has published primarily anthologies, and exclusively newer writers. Now Phobos Books is changing gears entirely. "To our deep regret, it has proven, let us say, financially unrewarding to focus on anthologies (which never sell as well as novels) and attempt to 'make' new authors in a difficult marketplace," says new Phobos Books Editor-in-Chief John Ordover.
In Fall of 2005, Phobos Books plans to launch a new IMPACT science fiction and fantasy line of series titles by known authors, so far to include Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Dean Wesley Smith, Mike Resnick, and Dayton Ward. This approach treads familiar ground for Ordover, who among other things has been editor of Star Trek titles for Pocket Books.
The annual Phobos fiction contest has been discontinued, but Phobos will still publish the anthology from the most recent contest, All the Rage This Year.
Yet Ordover considers the quest for new SF writers to be paused rather than stopped, saying that Phobos seeks to strengthen its position and "return to the original vision of Phobos as a home for new authors."
Phobos Entertainment, which originally launched Phobos Books, will continue to operate separately. Phobos has had the unusual habit of pulling together veterans of a wide variety of media—including film, comic books, literature, the Internet, and electronic gaming—as officers, advisors, and contest judges. On the Phobos website, they report that they will soon begin production of their first film.