A Conversation with Dark Quest Books' Author James Chambers
1) Why do you write? I write because I have stories to tell and things I want to say about the world and because characters come to life in my head, and if I don’t write their stories, they’ll die unknown, never having been loved, hated, feared, pitied, admired, understood, or misunderstood. I want to spare them that fate. Also, I write because fiction—in all its forms—is the vocabulary I use to engage with the world. Reality is fine, but in many ways, I prefer the understanding of reality that comes from distilling it through fiction.
2) What inspired you to become an author (no…it’s not the same thing J)? To put it simply: Reading. I’ve always loved reading books, always loved the experience of moving into the imaginary space of a novel or a story, to leaving the real world behind. It seemed like a natural thing to try my hand at creating my own stories, and I wanted to read stories no one else seemed to be writing. I found that, as a writer, I moved even deeper and more completely into those imaginary places than I did as a reader, and I’ve never looked back.
3) What was the hardest part about breaking into publishing? Building up enough confidence in my writing to submit it to editors. That was a hard bridge to cross. I still get a nervous twist in my gut every time I send a piece of writing off for consideration—but at least it keeps me on my toes.
4) Tell us about your upcoming Dark Quest Books title(s).
Three Chords of Chaos is a dark urban fantasy novella, part of the Bad-Ass Faeries series. It’s a faerie-punk love story. The main character Gorge first appeared in “The Way of the Bone” in the second BAF anthology, Just Plain Bad. A second story, “Faerie Ring Blues” appeared in BAF: In All Their Glory. Readers liked him, and I knew there was much more of his story to tell, thus this new novella. Three Chords explores Gorge’s life as an exiled faerie in the mortal world during the early 1980s. As a musical fae, banned from the realm of the sidhe for playing forbidden music, Gorge is drawn to the underground/punk music scene in New York City. There he learns he can build his magical strength by drawing on the energy of his fans. He also encounters a mortal wizard—and record producer—who wants to steal his magic. The wizard threatens Delilah, Gorge’s mortal lover, the one person who keeps him grounded and sane living in the mortal world. It’s a tour through the underground punk clubs and the decadent secret parties of the elite in NYC during which much magic is revealed and many guitars are smashed.
The Dead In Their Masses is the third volume in the Corpse Fauna series, a cycle of novellas and short stories set in a world overrun by the living dead. For those who’ve read the earlier volumes, this one picks up with Cornell (a former bank robber), Della (a nurse), and Mason (a guard) after they escape from the prison. For new readers, it’s an introduction to the Corpse Fauna world, where the walking dead are a little different than the traditional modern-day zombie. Sure, they shuffle, shamble, and eat the flesh of the living, but a shot to the head won’t stop them, and their bodies are riddled with sinister and mysterious eyes that appear in places they shouldn’t, even internal organs…. The Dead In Their Masses is a survival story, the tale of a journey through a deadly world that no longer belongs to the living and where sometimes the living are more dangerous than the dead. It grapples with the friction between faith and science, society and chaos, law and freedom, love and equality, and the need for individuals to maintain their independence from authority no matter what the cost. It also marks the return of the Red Man, a major character introduced in “Birch’s Refugees” in The Dead Bear Witness (Corpse Fauna, volume 1) and begins the final descent into the truth behind the living dead.
5) Have you always been drawn to your particular genre? What fascinates you about it? I’ve always been drawn to horror fiction and science fiction. My interest is complementary. The ability of horror fiction to conjure and explore raw, intense emotions fascinates me, as does the idea of playing with my fears and the fears of my readers for the sake of telling an engaging story. Good horror fiction has an element of Grimm’s fairy tales: It allows us to face terrible things in a safe environment and prime our psyches for dealing with horror in the real world. On the other hand, science fiction enthralls me because it’s the exploration in fiction of how scientific realities and ideas do or might one day shape human experience and society. The science fiction that most entertains me is science fiction that starts from a simple, concrete premise, asks “What if?”, and then spins out an exciting tale from the result. The genres are yin and yang, emotion and intellect, instinct and rationality, cynicism and optimism, the worst and best humanity has to offer. I enjoy switching from one to the other, so I guess I enjoy extremes.
6) What is the one thing you really want to write outside of your usual genre? I’d love to write an epic work of historical fiction, something that requires years of research. Also, I think I’d enjoy writing a straight-up, hardboiled, noir, private eye story, something in the vein of Chandler or Hammett but that ground is pretty well trod so I doubt I ever will.
7) How did you get started writing short stories? Short stories were my first love in fiction. I read tons of science fiction anthologies and horror collections growing up. Those stories defined my early understanding of fiction, and I’ve loved the form ever since. As much as I also love reading and writing longer fiction, the economy of a short story and the potential for short stories to hit readers like a speeding truck that appears out of nowhere still get me really excited about writing them. I love the challenge of creating a glimpse into a whole new world every time I write a new story.
8) How did you get started writing novels? I sat down to write a short horror story, aiming at 5,000 words or so. Well, 20,000 words later, I realized I was writing a novel, and that it was tremendously different from writing short stories.
9) Is it hard writing a series, what challenges does it present? I enjoy writing series. I like the opportunity to build up characters and worlds over a span of stories. But to date I’ve done it entirely in short fiction. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom there because you dip into dark little corners of a world or spend time with one or two characters to get to know them better. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or a tapestry or an oral history of an alternate world. Or maybe it’s like touring a foreign country guided by close friends rather than tour guides. The most challenging elements, though, are making sure that readers who come to any one story out of sequence aren’t lost or confused and deciding how much of the world, its rules, and its major players must be established for each story since there isn’t space enough to cover everything.
10) Did you enjoy writing in a shared universe someone else created? Yes. I wrote several issues of the comic book series Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals that I very much enjoyed. I had direct feedback from Mr. Nimoy on the scripts, and it was a thrill to put my spin on a preexisting world and characters. I’ve also written stories for anthologies featuring the pulp characters the Green Hornet, the Domino Lady, the Spider, and the Avenger. I don’t write pastiches, so I like the challenge of finding a way to write in my voice something distinctive and fresh with these characters that remains true to their original spirit—and will pass muster with the licensors. Writing such long-established characters also offers a great glimpse behind the curtains of what drives their long-lived popularity.
11) Which do you prefer, short fiction or long? (and of course, why?) To read—short fiction. I love the economy of language it engenders, and I enjoy the intensity it enables. I like the relative lack of commitment, and the opportunity to sample work from a lot writers I haven’t yet read. I love long fiction, as well, but novels often aren’t as tightly written as they should be. That’s a challenge for someone like me who hates to skip parts of a story and is compulsive about finding out how a story ends. To write—I love both, with short fiction taking an edge for the lead.
12) What about writing has taken you by surprise? Mostly the way characters really do come to life after a while and dictate where a story can go. I’ve thrown out entire plot elements because when I came to a certain scene my characters didn’t act the way I wanted them to—they acted like themselves, and I had to adjust. That kind of surprise is always a pleasant one, and I hope it keeps happening.
13) What about publishing has been a shock (yes, we would like details.)? The one thing about publishing that still shocks me is how often bad writing is rewarded. People are writing amazing fiction today, in the small press and elsewhere, and yet some of the worst things I’ve read in the past ten years were picks from the best-seller list. I realize this is highly subjective and a matter of taste, but on an objective level, I’ve read highly predictable, unoriginal works rife with bad writing mechanics and thin characters that have been big sales successes, gone on to be made into movies, and their fans rave about them. Part of it, I’m certain, is that these books connect with their audience on important levels other than only story and writing, that their characters and themes may matter much more—and that I’m simply not part of that audience. But it still shocks me these books become as popular as they do.
14) How is contributing to an anthology different from magazines or novel writing? For one thing, anthologies are often themed, so you’re obligated to engage pre-selected elements in your story. Also, writing short fiction is a smaller time commitment than writing a novel, so anthologies offer a great way to experiment and try my hand at writing something I might not otherwise write. Some of my favorite stories I’ve written in the last few years have been at the prompting of an anthology editor who asked me to do something I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. Gorge, star of Three Chords of Chaos, came into life that way. My editor, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, said she wanted “heavy metal faeries” for BAF: Just Plain Bad. The idea resonated with me, and I wrote “The Way of the Bone.”
15) Have you ever considered self-publishing? What did (or did not) stop you? I went down the self-publishing road in the comic book industry, where self-publishing is a very different thing than it is for novels and other books. There was a time when it was incredibly difficult to find a publisher for a comic book project without selling away all your intellectual property rights outright; in other words, your publisher often wound up owning all your hard work and creativity, copyrights, trademarks included. (It’s a little better these days in the comics biz, but still a long way from where it should be.) This energized a creator-owned comics movement driven by writers and artists willing to become their own publisher to maintain control of their creations. I did this with a horror comic, “The Revenant,” which appeared in Shadow House, which I published with my partner, Christopher Mills. The experience taught me firsthand that becoming a self-publisher meant also becoming an editor, a salesperson, a marketing and PR director, a production manager, an accountant, a distribution expert, a diplomat, and maybe half a dozen other roles required for successful publishing. It seems a lot of people who opt to self-publish in any field don’t understand this. Self-publishing isn’t only making a book and throwing up a website; it means becoming a publisher for yourself and taking on all the responsibilities of a publisher. Not a small task. For my prose fiction, I’ve avoided self-publishing so that I can concentrate on writing. I like the traditional partnership of working with a publisher, such as Dark Quest Books.
16) If you could work on any anthology project you want, what would it be? There are a handful of established characters I’d like to write at least once, and a short story would be a great way to do it. I’d love to write a Batman story or John Constantine story. I’d love to write a Godzilla story. If someone ever asked me to contribute to a tribute anthology for Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, or Jim Thompson, I’d enjoy doing that.
17) Why did you choose to go with an independent publisher? I enjoy working with Dark Quest Books for two reasons. One, they allow me the freedom to write the stories I want to write and to write them how I think best. Neal Levin and all my editors at DQB have been amazingly supportive of my writing. They’ve given me a venue to stretch my muscles, experiment, try different things, and to really go places I don’t think I would’ve gone on my own but which have proven highly rewarding. Two, Dark Quest Books stands out among small press publishers for their professionalism. They understand the publishing process—from conceiving a project to editing it and prepping it for publication to promoting it—and everyone involved puts their hearts into it. On Three Chords of Chaos, for example, we went through two rounds of remarkably fruitful editing. It was the kind of incisive, spot-on editing that understands the work and aims to make it better without changing it. I know writers who didn’t have that experience at major houses.
18) Tell us about something in your writing career you would have done different given a second chance. I’ll tell you three things. One, I would’ve established a regular writing regimen much earlier in my life. Nothing has helped me more as a writer than simply writing every day. Two, I would’ve started submitting my work much sooner than I did. The experience and feedback would’ve been helpful, and the truth is you know exactly what’s going to happen with every story you write but never submit. Three, I would’ve experimented with different genres more when I was starting out. I like where I am as a writer today, but looking back, I can see I might’ve gotten here sooner.
19) What advice do you have for someone just getting started? Don’t ever get discouraged. Be open to where opportunities lead you, and be patient. Very, very few writers become overnight successes, but anyone willing to stick with it, keep writing, keep submitting, listen to feedback, and work hard to improve will absolutely be rewarded. Talk to other writers and build a network of people doing what you’re doing. Keep in touch with these people; they are the only other folks in your life who will understand the dizzying heights and terrifying lows of writing. Never hesitate to help out a friend or colleague if you can. Always be professional and respectful. And, most importantly, write every day—a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, whatever you can manage. Flex your writing muscles daily.