Interviewer: Tim Rohr
Date: February 2012
David B. Coe is the author of eleven fantasy novels, including the Crawford Award-Winning LONTOBYN CHRONICLE, the WINDS OF THE FORELANDS quintet, and the BLOOD OF THE SOUTHLANDS trilogy. He’s also the pen behind the novelization of the Ridley Scott-directed major motion picture, ROBIN HOOD. You can connect with him at www.davidbcoe.com.
I first met David B. Coe at a writers convention right around the time that ROBIN HOOD was hitting the theaters and David’s novelization of that story was hitting the bookshelves (his novel, THE DARK-EYES’ WAR, had just been released earlier that year, too; it was a big year for him). He’d been on a panel discussing screen-adaptations, and I remember my first impression of him was wrong on one salient point. Oh, he was definitely polished, I wasn’t wrong about that. And in love with writing; no dispute there. Intelligent, well-spoken, and affable. Easily approached. I was right on all points except one.
He wasn’t from Hollywood. I was sure… but no. Tennessee.
Not The Incorporated Village of Tennessee, suburb of Hollywood?
Despite that erroneous preconception, after later meeting him and getting to know him a bit, I found that I’d been right about the rest. David is quite easy to talk to. He’s exceptionally warm and courteous, and very gracious with his time. I recently had the opportunity to have a conversation with him.
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MiFiWriters: Let me first say thank you for giving us some of your time. Aside from your writing, you manage multiple professional blogs, contribute to a couple others (magicalwords.net and sfnovelists.com), and you have something of a big summer shaping up, which we’ll get to in a minute. Oh, and let’s not forget raising a family. Your time is obviously at a premium. Talk for a minute about how you balance these various demands and still manage to carve out time for your writing projects.
David B. Coe: Thanks for having me on your site, Tim. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Finding balance of the sort you describe is a daily challenge. It’s a bit easier now than it was, say ten years ago, in part because my kids are 16 and 12 rather than 6 and 2. It’s not that they need me any less, or that they’ve gotten any easier to ignore . . . but rather that they understand now when I say, “Hey, I’m happy to help you out, but can you give me 10 minutes to finish this thought,” or something of the sort. That makes a huge difference.
It’s also easier now simply because I’m a more experienced writer. I used to depend far more on momentum to keep me going. Interruptions could derail my writing for a day; a couple of missed days could stall a project in a major way. At this point, I find that I can turn my creative flow on and off with greater ease. It doesn’t take me an hour to get going in the morning, and missed days of work are far less disruptive than they used to be.
At root though, the secret for me hasn’t changed that much over the years. I set aside time for work — standard business hours during a five day work week. And I set aside time for family, life, friends, etc. — pretty much everything else. I set boundaries for myself. There is work time and there is family time, and I try hard to keep either one from intruding upon the other.
MFW: Do you ever feel… how did Bilbo put it?… “stretched”?
DBC: Sure, sometimes. As deadlines approach, or as release days draw near and the demands of promotional work weigh more heavily — those times tend to feel more frantic, more chaotic. And yes, I start to feel like I’m being pulled in too many directions at once. But generally speaking, I have found that doing certain things for myself each day keeps that “stretched” feeling at bay. I work out at the local gym (at the university where my wife teaches) just about every morning. While I’m working out, I get in some recreational reading, and that really helps. During the day, when I take breaks from work, I pull out my guitar and play some music. And on days when I need to get away, I’ll go for a hike or take my camera out and do some photographic work. All those things help keep me feeling at least mostly sane.
MFW: For those who don’t know, you studied United States History as a graduate student at Stanford, and received your Ph.D. in 1993. Tor published your first book in 1997. That must have been an interesting four years. What prompted the change, and what was it like, having reached that level of accomplishment, to go in a completely new direction?
DBC: The change was prompted by the realization that as much as I enjoy history, I REALLY am not cut out to be an academic. My wife is; she loves her job and she’s terrific at it. But it’s just not for me. I have always loved writing fiction — I wrote (and illustrated) my first “novel” when I was six years old. I had convinced myself that writing and teaching history at the college level would be a way to keep writing, but also get a more stable job than “professional novelist.” But when I realized that I didn’t enjoy that life, going back to fiction seemed like that natural choice. I actually sold my first novel to Tor in 1994, less than a year after finishing my degree. But the book needed a good deal of editorial work and then there were the usual publishing delays, which is why the book didn’t come out for another three years.
I have continued to do a bit of lecturing at the university, and I have used my history degree (which was in US environmental history) in varying ways throughout my writing career. So I never feel that I have entirely abandoned by academic training or that I wasted those years at Stanford. (And, of course, I met my wife while in grad school, so it was definitely a worthwhile endeavor.)
MFW: How does that background as an academic and as a historian help you as a writer?
DBC: In several ways. Writing my dissertation, which ran to nearly 100,000 words (if you include the footnotes) taught me to write to a deadline, to write on demand, to put my butt in the chair each day and get the work done. I’m not sure there can be a more important lesson for a professional writer. I also learned a great deal about research, about how to make the most of sources and how to decide when I need more information, and when I have enough. Also, understanding human social systems and the way we interact with the natural environment has come in handy again and again as I work on my worldbuilding for various projects. Creating realistic cultures, complete with religions, customs, social norms, fully articulated economic systems, and, yes, compelling political and social histories, is essential to effective worldbuilding. I don’t believe I could do it nearly as well as I do without my academic background. And finally, I am now working on a historical fantasy series under a pseudonym and so am putting my historical background to use as never before.
MFW: Academia in general—and History, in particular—has a reputation for dryness that could make a Prohibitionist blush. Fantasy fiction seems like a world apart (no pun intended). Once you made the decision to pursue your writing, what was it about genre-fiction that drew you? Had you always been a fan?
DBC: I became a fan as a teen, when I first read THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS. I decided at that point that I wanted to read as much fantasy and SF as I could get my hands on. A few years later I read Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books — all six of them (there were only six back then) and upon finishing them decided that I wanted to write fantasy, that if ever I was going to be a writer it would be in this genre. And then finally, another couple of years later I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, and knew that I wanted to write just like Kay. So by the time I got back to the idea of writing professionally, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to write.
MFW: What was the most recent thing you read that gave you shivers for how good it was?
DBC: Paolo Bacigalupi’s THE WINDUP GIRL. A terrifying, gripping, eloquent ecological dystopian novel. Utterly compelling, beautifully written. Just breathtaking.
MFW: Do you remember the first thing you wrote, creatively speaking?
DBC: Well, there was that novel I wrote when I was six. It was called “Jim, the Talking Fish,” (perhaps coincidentally, I have a brother named Jim…) and it was about a fish who didn’t have any friends. But then he rescues another fish from an evil fisherman, and all the fish become his friends. It is a heartwarming tale of redemption, of adventure, and of ichthyological emotion.
I wrote a bunch of short stories in grade school, several of them fairly clever, if I do say so myself. I was a good student, but a bit of a wise-ass, and that came through in those early efforts. I wrote a couple of decent pieces in high school, and then in the summer after my senior year started gathering ideas for a fantasy novel that eventually became my first published work, CHILDREN OF AMARID.
MFW: What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
DBC: I took a creative writing course in college — exactly one. It was one of those shared critique/workshop kind of courses where we were all “helping” one another with our work, and it was a nightmare. No one else in the class wrote genre stuff, and their critiques were . . . Well, let’s just say that they were less than helpful. But the graduate student who ran the seminars was great and she gave me one piece of priceless advice. As I was struggling with part of the story and looking at some of the few helpful suggestions I had gotten from my critiques (most of them came from her) she said “Don’t retreat into rewrites. Keep moving forward.”
Those, I think, are words to live by for any aspiring writing. It is so easy to reach a point in a given project and decide that rather than deal with the mess lying in our path, we’re going to go back and rework the earlier chapters. Because, of course, earlier chapters ALWAYS need at least some work. I would urge people not to give in to that temptation. The hardest thing to do is finish a first draft. Yes, there will be rewrites upon rewrites upon rewrites, but it is always easier to work with a completed manuscript than it is to rework a draft while it’s in progress. And again, finishing the first draft is the most important milestone in the preparation of any book. “Don’t retreat into rewrites.” Great advice.
MFW: Let’s talk a little about process. Are you an office-writer, or an anywhere-you-find-yourself writer? What about music? Are you one to jump from scene to scene, or do you go start to finish, locomotive-style?
DBC: I generally work best in my office, in large part because I have a set of bookshelves covering an entire wall of the office, floor to ceiling, that is filled with reference books, research tools, etc. I will sometimes go somewhere else to write — outside or to a coffee house here in town — but invariably I wind up with notations in the manuscript of things I need to look up or correct later. It’s just easier to work in my office where everything I need is right there.
I do sometimes listen to music, although only instrumental, improvisational stuff — specifically jazz and bluegrass. Yeah, pretty picky, I know. But I find that music with words distracts me, and I find as well that more structured music — classical, for instance — makes me feel, I don’t know, confined I guess is the best word. With the improvisational stuff, I feel that my creative juices really start flowing.
And I definitely have to work my way through a book methodically, in a linear fashion. I do not understand how other writers can jump around from scene to scene. I wish I could do that. It would be convenient at times. But I just can’t.
MFW: How long do you walk around with a new idea before you’re putting words on a page?
DBC: I have no set answer for this. Sometimes I can start working on a new idea immediately; at other times it can literally take years. It depends on what else I’m working on, it depends on what other ideas are bouncing around in my head demanding my attention, and it depends on the idea itself. Some develop quickly; others take far longer to percolate.
MFW: Let’s say, midway through your writing day, you run into a difficult scene. Things aren’t working out. Do you lock the door and hunker down, work on something else, or go for a walk?
DBC: I used to take a walk or find something else to do that has nothing to do with writing. And I suppose I still do that on occasion. I’ll pick up my guitar and bang away on it for a while. Or I’ll get up and walk around the house. But I give myself far less time to work past hurdles of that sort than I used to. I need less time. I can push through the hard scenes far more easily now, simply because I’ve been through that situation so many times. I used to panic. There is a point in almost every book — usually at about the 60% mark — where I get stuck. Every book. It used to be that I would suddenly “discover” that there was no story there at all, that I had been deluding myself, that it turns out this was a terrible idea, a terrible book, a series that really ought not to be written, and that, of course, I needed to be doing something else — selling insurance, perhaps, or raising chinchillas. It got to the point where my wife would come home from work and ask how my day was, and I’d go off on this rant about how awful the book was and how I really didn’t know how I’d ever finish it. And she’d say, “Oh, you’re about at the two-thirds mark, eh?” The point is, I still hit that point in the book, but I don’t panic anymore. I know that it’s part of the process. And knowing that, keeping the panic at bay, makes all the difference in the world. These days, I just put my butt in the chair and write my way through it.
MFW: I have a new standard for the completeness of an interview, and that standard is that both ichthyological emotion and chinchilla husbandry make it into the discussion. Well done, sir.
DBC: Yes, well if you had somehow gotten me to comment on avifaunal migration patterns and herpetological mating rituals you could have had the grand slam of animal kingdom references. But that moment has passed…
MFW: I am, as we speak, amending my notes for future use. Now, do you still attend a writers group? Or do you have a circle of first-readers you rely on for feedback? Who is the first person you let read what you’ve written, and at what point do you let that person see?
DBC: I’ve actually never been part of a successful writers group. I suppose that’s the price I pay for living in a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. I do have a group of readers to whom I will send manuscripts. Some are writing colleagues, some are friends. I will show work to my agent, of course, and to my wife. And I’ve been fortunate to work with the same editor at Tor on every book I’ve published. I trust his judgment implicitly, and will show him anything, even short fiction that Tor won’t be publishing.
But usually I won’t show anything to anyone until I’ve (a) completed the manuscript, (b) allowed it to sit for several weeks without working on it or even looking at it, and (c) done a first round of revisions. I have a lot of faith in my ability to edit myself — not to the exclusion of more extensive edits by others, of course — but enough that I don’t need to have people read chapters or passages along the way.
MFW: You have previously published short stories, and recently released some in support of your larger, novel length work. Is short form fiction something you enjoy, and are you still working in it? Do you still produce free standing short stories?
DBC: I love writing short fiction, and I’ve grown more fond of it as my career has progressed. I believe that the short form is, in many ways, the purest, most effective form of prose fiction. Maybe because I sold three novels before ever selling a short story, I think of writing novels as the easier artistic task. But telling a complete, satisfying tale in 7,000 words or fewer? Wow. That to me is the ultimate challenge. I have written more short stories in the last year than I have at any other point in my career, and I fully intend to keep writing them.
MFW: Ok, I understand you have a new summer release… but not as David B. Coe. You’re working under a pseudonym. Can you talk about the decision to publish under a different name?
DBC: Yes, of course. The new series is called the Thieftaker Chronicles and it is historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Each book is a stand alone mystery set against the backdrop of some significant event in the lead-up to the American Revolution. My lead character, Ethan Kaille, is a thieftaker — sort of the 18th century equivalent of a private investigator. He is also a conjurer. The first book in the series, THIEFTAKER, begins on the night of the Stamp Act riots. It will be released on July 3, which is very appropriate given the Revolutionary element.
The reason we decided to go with a ‘nym for this series (my editor and agent both helped with the decision) is that when people see a book by David B. Coe, they expect a certain kind of story — epic fantasy, alternate world, intricate plot lines spread out over several volumes, multiple point of view characters. The Thieftaker books are different. As I say, they’re stand alones, they tend to be more focused, leaner. They read more like urban fantasy than like epic or high fantasy. They are written entirely from a single character’s point of view. So in the interest of what is referred to in the industry as “author branding” (it’s not nearly as painful as it sounds) we went with a new name.
The name I chose as my pseudonym is D. B. Jackson (my father’s name was Jack, so this was a way of honoring him) and you can learn all about ole D.B. and his books at
MFW: That’s a nice tribute to your father. Did he get a chance to see your work in print, see you win the Crawford Award? What do you think he would say about THIEFTAKER?
DBC: He and my mother were still alive when I signed my first contracts with Tor, and they were very proud. They weren’t fans of fantasy, but they knew how much I loved it and they understood how hard it is to get a novel published. My mother died just after I finished the rough draft of CHILDREN OF AMARID. My father died a few months before the book’s release, so neither of them ever saw one of my books in print. That’s probably the single greatest regret I have with respect to my career.
I think both my parents would like THIEFTAKER a lot, more than anything else I’ve written. My mother would be very pleased to see me putting my Ph.D. to use, and I think both of them would enjoy the realism of the story, the mystery element, the main character.
MFW: Knowing that what you’re writing will be published under a different name, do you feel different during those writing sessions? More free? What about your writing style, or your tone? Are we going to get the David B. Coe we know from your previous work, or will this be something of a departure?
DBC: I certainly have found the experience freeing, mostly because it’s so different from my previous work. I like the leaner writing style. I like being able to draw tighter story arcs that span only a single volume. And I just love my POV character. Ethan is older than the typical fantasy hero — late 30s when the series begins. He has been through difficult times — he is an ex-convict who as a young man helped lead a mutiny on a privateering ship. He was sent to a sugar plantation in the Caribbean to labor for 14 years. He lost part of his foot while we was there, and so now walks with a limp. He lost his love, was abandoned by most of his friends and family. He has hit rock bottom and is, in these books, clawing his way back to some semblance of contentment, even as he battles rogue conjurers, a deadly (and alluring) rival thieftaker, British authorities, and American patriots (with whom he does not always see eye to eye). The books are dark, edgy, but also fun at times. So yeah, it’s a departure from my old work, and it’s been a blast.
MFW: We’ll have to talk about those more as the release date comes closer. Do you think D.B. might be able to stop by and chat later this summer?
DBC: I think D.B. would love that. I hope we can make that work.
MFW: We like to close our interviews by asking the author to pass on to those reading some bit of his or her writing philosophy or wisdom… in the form of a haiku. Feel up to the challenge?
Put your butt in chair
Make your own inspiration
Because writers write.
MFW: Thanks for your time, David.
DBC: My pleasure! Thanks for inviting me to your site.