January 30, 2015

The Heavy Price of Being a Hero: an interview with Jake Elliot, author of "The Wrong Way Down"

Having lived all across the United States, fantasy author Jake Elliot currently resides in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and their giant cat. (He’s twenty pounds and a bit sensitive about his big belly.) Jake has been published nine times, including two novels and seven short stories.

Birds fly, fish swim, Jake writes.

Gef: What was the impetus behind The Wrong Way Down?

Jake: Hmmm, do I answer this honestly, or do I lie?

Fine, honesty it is.

Long ago, in the 1990s, a time before the publishing revolution began, I read a popular fantasy author and arrogantly professed I could do better than he. I no longer feel such egotistical sentiments; writing fantasy is a tough gig.

I wrote my first fantasy novel soon after college...and it wasn’t very good. So, I wrote it once again, and it got better, but it still couldn’t stand on its own. Six years ago, I changed the main character from Popalo to Popalia. Popalo got a sex change. Every relationship and interaction he’d developed in the initial story needed revision after his ‘gender surgery.’ The new Popalia gave my world a very fresh breath of life.

The old book needed to be re-written and renamed again, this time it became The Wrong Way Down and was published with a small press. Early last year, it went out of print. There were a few spots needing patchwork before reprinting. Mostly, I smoothed the action and tightened the dialogue. Now the tale is at its sharpest.

Gef: What do you suppose is the saving grace of epic fantasy?

Jake: As a writer, epic fantasy is a clean palette, an open sandbox. As long as the rules for your world are written and kept true, the only limitations are the dimensions of imagination for both reader and writer. Seriously, if you want knights that wear flamingo-pink armor and ride flying unicorns, fantasy is the only genre that will stand for such foolery.

I dare you, John Grisham, put flamingo-pink knights riding flying unicorns in one of your courtroom thrillers. Heh. (I haven’t crossed that bridge either.)

Another aspect I like about fantasy is that the least likely loser is generally destined to save the world from some harrowing apocalypse—it is common for Good to triumph over Evil—an occurrence that rarely happens here on Earth. In my writing, I like to explore the nature of law versus chaos and see how dirty ‘Good’ is willing to get to beat big-bad ‘Evil.’ Being a true dork, I like philosophical abstracts and absolutes.

Gef: When did you first feel the lure of epic fantasy and the like?

Jake: I love JRR Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. Tolkien created Gandalf, Howard created Conan. Beyond them, I’ve read some, but not much epic fantasy. I find writing fantasy as fun, especially when it is spotted with a smidgeon of horror.

I think of the Heretic Series as being ‘Mock-Epic.” The ‘heroes’ in The Wrong Way Down will pay heavy prices for the title of ‘hero,’ and ‘hero’ is questionable at best. Under-equipped for the road ahead, Popalia’s gang will experience a random meeting with an abnormally hostile beast deep in the woods, they’ll be conned by cunning thieves, as there are a few other surprise mishaps that I shouldn’t spoil here. The ‘Heretic Series’ isn’t a success story, but more like watching a train wreck in slow motion. In each of the four books it only gets worse.

Gef: While I've never played Dungeons and Dragons, that's where my mind instantly wonders at the mere mention of the genre, even more so than to Tolkien's or Martin's work. In the grand scheme of things, do you feel the genre is well represented in pop culture, or does is still need some educating for the casual reader/viewer?

Jake: I think the genre is right where it needs to be. Fantasy and Sci-fi are ‘dork genres,’ and they should remain so. Seriously, if you read and liked the Lord of the Rings books more than the movies, then you’ve got serious ‘dork tendencies’ and you just might love what I’m writing too. (Don’t get all hurt by my name-calling antics, I fly my ‘dork-flag’ with pride.) As a reader’s ‘meter of dorkiness’ wanes, fewer and fewer people see The Wrong Way Down for what it is—a fast paced, sometimes goofy story about a gang of losers who fail epically.

Sci-fi and fantasy readers are highly imaginative people. Escapists love fantasy too. In my unimportant opinion, high fantasy books will never appeal to a popular market. Clearly, J. K. Rowling took fantasy to new heights, but in a lot of ways, she kept her mythologies relatively palatable to a common audience. Gearing Harry Potter toward the most imaginative minds out there, she hit her mark—children.

I’m writing adult subjects. Deep imagination in adults is a hard variable to compensate. From the gate, I expected a small, but rabidly loyal fan base. So far, so good, but it would be nice to see a few more in the ranks.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received?

Jake: “Write what you know.” How dull. I could write about a guy who delivers pizza. I know a lot about pizza and driving. I even know how to drive a standard transmission. I don’t like black olives on pizza, so in my upcoming pizza-delivery/murder-mystery, black olives will probably point out who the murderer is. Oops, sorry for that spoiler.

“Write what you know.” Seriously, by that advice, no writer could write about murder. I guess my next book could be an insider’s look at prison life. My books would be filled with boring pages if I wrote only what I knew. (See later question about ‘research.’)

Gef: How much research goes into a novel like this, which doesn't take place in our world so much, but comes with its own rules so to speak?

Jake: That depends on how realistic and believable you want your new world to be. I put in a fair bit of research. General concepts and theory of biology, geography, and physics make for the base construction of my warped little world. The world is Earth-like, but slightly exaggerated and mutated in spots. Having an interest in Philosophy and Religious History helped me build credible religions and distinct cultures. A few books on medieval weapons, pirates, and religious inquisitions helped as well. I’m no expert in any of those subjects, but I’ve learned enough to build a relatable world.

Gef: The Wrong Way Down features a bumbling sorcerer, Wynkkur. My favorite kind. Do you have a favorite wizard or sorcerer from previous works, whether it be book, movies, games, or TV? Dibs on Orko!

Jake: I’m glad you brought up Wynkkur. He got a raw deal with the name and all. Wynkkur’s plight isn’t so much that he is bumbling, but more that he lacks training in how to use the magic he’d accidentally learned. It’s all rather complicated, but imagine a dirty bomb with an unreliable timer.

Gandalf, a.k.a. the Grey Pilgrim, is my top wizard. I love the idea behind Gandalf; a benevolent force for good who not only walks his talk, but stands true by his companions. He relied more on his wisdom and cunning than reckless displays of power. When Gandalf conjured up his powers, we readers knew the situation had turned dire. It is almost Clint Eastwood cool for a wizard to maintain that kind of restraint. (Wizards don’t live long in my world— remember ‘dirty bomb with an unreliable timer’—self-destruction is the most common form of expiration for magic users.)

Gef: The third novel in the Heretic Series is scheduled for a mid-2015 release, if I'm not mistaken. How is that outlook faring? And how can folks keep up with your future projects and overall shenanigans?

Jake: Book Three: Hounds of the Hunted is about desperate fugitives and an unstoppable gang of pirates. Both books three and four are technically finished, but book four is still too rough to whisper its cool name. Hounds just got back from my most trusted beta readers and all the test reads have been well-liked. I will soon make necessary adjustments.

Carter Reid, who put together the awesome cover for The Wrong Way Down said he is on-board for Hounds of the Hunted. As with The Wrong Way Down, there will be two editors to help me make this story awesome. I’m projecting HotH to be ready by May 1st, but I might be a little overambitious.

If you are looking for me, I can be found at –


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