From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Conversation with James Maxey, Author of the Dragon Age Series

Congratulations on the publication of Dragonseed, the third book in your Dragon Age series. In the series, Blasphet is one of the most complicated, fundamentally evil characters I have ever encountered. Is writing such a character liberating, loosing your basest impulses onto the page, or is Blasphet about what you fear?

Blasphet was a guilty pleasure for me as a writer, because he’s so evil he’s actually kind of funny. I think a lot of the best lines in the books wind up in his mouth. And, his explanations of his motives in Dragonforge, when he discusses the nearly sexual thrill he gets by causing pain and suffering to others, is my best attempt at figuring out how people (or dragons!) succumb to their darker urges.

Bitterwood, another pivotal character in the series, is also complicated. Do his philosophical/theological struggles in some way reflect your own?

Bitterwood is almost my exact philosophical opposite. He holds on to grudges and draws strength from them. Bitterwood serves as my dark mirror. He believes in striking first, in judging instantly, and in hating his enemies. He’s not that fond of his friends, either! I find that hate and grudges weaken me. I think it’s rewarding to try to understand my enemies.

Of course, Bitterwood’s world view changes over the course of the series.

You created a marvelously complex dragon society, complete with varying dragon morphologies, social roles, and psychologies. How long did these creatures inhabit your brain before they found a home in this series?

I must admit to being a nerd. One of the most fateful moments in my life, which I remember with crystal clarity, came when I was sixteen and a friend asked me if I’d ever heard of a game called Dungeons and Dragons. Soon I had the boxed set in my hands, and there was never any doubt that it was the dragons that caught my imagination. My earliest adventures featured humans on quests to slay dragons. However, as I played D&D pretty much every week for the next twenty years, my dragons became characters with goals and back-stories of their own. The dragons of my novels have very little in common with typical D&D dragons. They don’t breathe fire, and they’re social creatures instead of loners. But at the core of my multi-decade obsession with dragons is the simple fact that I think dragons are really cool.

If you could meet and converse with one of your dragon characters, which one would you want to talk to, and why?

Hex! I can argue politics for hours on end without tiring. Hex’s actions are driven by his philosophy, and I think in the third book especially, he begins to discover how reality can complicate simple and elegant political theories. Hex is also a fundamentally honest character. I think it would be interesting to talk to him a few years after the events of the third book to hear his analysis of how his anarchist philosophy changed with experience.

Your short stories, like your novels, are populated with damaged or flawed characters. You seem to be willing to believe in pure evil, as represented by Blasphet, but pure good is rare in your stories. Would it be fair to assert that the James Maxey credo is that all people are fundamentally selfish, though the degree of selfishness varies?

Actually, I don’t believe in pure evil. Blasphet simply arrived at ethical conclusions that differed from the rest of the cast. The goddess, Jazz, is a good example of my approach to “evil.” She starts by embracing values that most people would recognize as fundamentally good. But when she begins to believe that her cause is righteous, she moves into the realm of villainy. She will kill anyone who stands in the way of her mission to “protect” the earth.

Also, I’m not sure that my characters are fundamentally selfish. It’s true that I build my plots around characters with their own individual agendas. But, many of these agendas are not selfish. Vendevorex in Bitterwood could continue living a life of comfort, but he gives it all up to protect Jandra; he’s unwilling to cross the moral line that Albekizan demands and slaughter humans. Bitterwood is driven through the first book mostly by his hate, but as the series progresses, you see his fatherly instincts awaken

I think one reason that I spend so much effort making the Dragon Age a dark and dangerous time is that it’s a type of literary chiaroscuro: I try to use the darkness to draw attention to the light.

On your blog, Jawbone of an Ass, you wrote an essay supporting the notion that human ingenuity will save our species from extinction. And in your novels and stories, the good guys, after much adversity, do eventually beat the bad guys. What is your assessment of humanity’s future?

For the most part, I’m an optimist. Many of the problems that face humanity are rooted in the physical world, and can be solved by a better understanding and manipulation of matter. One of the amazing things about the material world–I’m tempted to say it’s a miraculous thing–is that it yields to study. Our modern comforts flow from our ever-increasing understanding of matter. We pump fluids from the ground, refine them, and create machines that propel us hundreds of miles on a single tank. I carry a small device in my pocket that lets me talk to anyone with the touch of a button. We live in a world of casual miracles, and there are more to come.

One of the “magic items” in the third book are the dragonseeds. These look like fat watermelon seeds. Eat one, and you are healed of all your injuries. Missing limbs grow back; even old scars fade. I base the dragonseed on far-future nanotechnology. We may never develop a pill that heals all our injuries, but I am optimistic that we will be able one day to model a cancer cell down to the molecular level, and then swallow a pill containing the precise molecular chains needed to turn off the cancer. I don’t think this is far future technology–I think it’s no more than fifty years away.

As you know, I lost my partner, Laura Herrmann, to breast cancer. To help fund cancer research, I’ve set aside 50 copies of Dragonseed to give to anyone who makes a contribution to the Susan G. Koman Breast Cancer Foundation. Readers can find out more about making a contribution by visiting my blog at http://dragonprophet.blogspot.com/. Look for the link near the top of the page. As I write this, I’ve given away twenty books and raised over $600.

Dragonseed turns out to be a curiously appropriate book to use to promote this cause. When I wrote the book, I didn’t really understand what it was about. But when I recently got my copies of Dragonseed, I realized that almost all the major plot threads involve injured characters struggling to heal from their wounds, both physical and emotional. Some of the characters in the book accept healing, while others reject it: Some characters discover they are the sum of their scars.

In retrospect, I see that, in Dragonseed, I worked through some of the feelings I have about healing and disease. For instance, I would have paid any price for Laura not to have cancer. But, in a curious paradox, having cancer somehow made Laura more alive. The awareness that her time was limited made her time more precious. I think some of the characters in Dragonseed struggle with similar issues.

In your early writing years, what writing flaws prevented you from producing stories that sold?

In my early stories, I assumed that if something interested me, it would interest the reader. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to have good readers give me feedback on their experiences reading my work, and I’ve slowly built a model in my mind of an unseen reader who participates in creating my books. The words I put on the page are just half the art. It’s the reader’s imagination that truly brings the world and the characters to life. It’s my duty as a writer to provide readers with all the information needed to spark their imaginations and have the voices and pictures in their heads overlap, at least a bit, with my own. It’s also important that I not provide too much information, so I don’t squash the reader’s role as co-creator. Learning to find this balance was a struggle; I’m still mastering it. But when I started, I wasn’t even aware that the reader was my creative partner.

Bollinger
Catherine Bollinger has been a freelance writer and editor for over a decade. A graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp, she has amassed a tidy collection of encouraging rejections for her short story endeavors. She has been an avid reader of speculative fiction since she discovered the books of Jules Verne in her school’s library many long years ago.