Today, Bradley P. Beaulieu chats with D.B. Jackson, who is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, Thieftaker, is out now and Bradley had Five Questions he wanted to ask him.
Here’s what D.B. Jackson had to say…
Bradley P. Beaulieu: I’m really enamored of the main conceit in Thieftaker, in particular the main character and the villain he faces. In a recent interview, you said:
The idea for the Thieftaker series was sparked by a footnote that I read in Robert Hughes’ history of Australia, The Fatal Shore. (Yes, a footnote. In a history book. I admit it: I’m a geek.) The footnote described the life of London’s most famous thieftaker, the notorious Jonathan Wild. Wild was a brute and criminal who was responsible for nearly all the thefts that he “solved” as a thieftaker. He or his henchmen would steal goods, and then those things that Wild couldn’t sell for great profit he would turn around and return for a fee. He made a fortune, and all the while was hailed for his uncanny ability to recover stolen goods.
My first thought upon reading about Wild was “What a great idea for a book character!” I modeled my lead character’s nemesis, Sephira Pryce, after Wild. It might be the first time I have had a book idea present itself to me in the form of an antagonist rather than a protagonist.
A great idea for a character, indeed! Upon reading this, I was instantly reminded of the relationship between Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes. Said more succinctly, a kick-ass villain requires a kick-ass hero. Did the creation of Sephira Pryce (great name, by the way) drive you to make your protagonist, Ethan Kaille—a conjurer and thieftaker—more heroic? Did you actively look for or create similarities or contrasts between these two characters?
D.B. Jackson: Ethan’s interactions with Sephira definitely made him a stronger, more resourceful hero, and yes, I have tried to make them mirror images of each other by teasing out the contrasts in their personalities and circumstances. Sephira is wealthy, successful, influential. She is, like Jonathan Wild, the head of a criminal empire, who gets credit for being a bulwark against crime. She has men — toughs — working for her, and almost never goes anywhere alone. And she is also beautiful, sexy, outwardly charming, even as she runs her business with uncompromising brutality.
Ethan, on the other hand, is a bit of a loner, he is barely scratching out a living for himself, and what little fame he enjoys is tied to his past as a convicted mutineer who served for 14 years as a prisoner at hard labor. His imprisonment left him lame, scarred. He has a gruff manner that doesn’t endear him to many. But he is honest and at root a caring person. The two of them really could not be more dissimilar.
Yet they are tied to each other by their profession, and by their rivalry. Ethan is constantly grappling with Sephira, trying to overcome her advantages in resources, manpower, influence. And he finds at every turn that she is every bit as canny as he. He “loses” to her as often as he prevails, and I think that keeps their relationship fresh.
But I should also note here that in the first Thieftaker book, as well as in its sequels, Ethan has two antagonists. Sephira is his nemesis, and she is there, getting in the way of his plans, in every book. In addition, though, each book also has a second villain, someone else Ethan has to overcome as he seeks to solve whatever mystery he might be working on. And, oddly perhaps, there are times when he is forced to rely on Sephira for help, or she on him.
BPB: I’ve made no secret that writing historical fiction scares the bejeebers out of me because I’m afraid of getting things wrong, so I’m envious of those who can tackle such stories confidently. Can you give me some sense of how you went about researching this book? What I’m most curious about is how you prepared for the plotting and initial draft and how that compared to research during the revision process. In other words: what did you research before and what did you “follow up on” when you entered revisions?
DBJ: I know what you mean about those historical fiction fears. I have a doctorate in history, and still I was terrified of taking this on, precisely because I didn’t want to get stuff wrong. This was all complicated by the fact that in its first incarnation, Thieftaker was an alternate-world fantasy. It was only in the second draft, after discussing the matter with my editor, that I decided to try to turn this into a historical.
Upon making that choice, I embarked upon something of a crash course in U.S. Colonial history, and on the history of Boston in particular (my doctorate is in modern U.S. history). I read a number of historical monographs on Colonial urban history, on pre-Revolutionary politics, and on events in Boston during this period. I quickly found an event that would fit well with the story I had already told in that alternate world: the Stamp Act Riots of 1765. Once I settled on that, I then identified a number of other questions that I knew I would have to answer as I wrote, and I researched those using a blend of primary and secondary source material.
Of course, I couldn’t anticipate every question, and so I wound up doing some of my research as I was writing. I spent several days — one here, one there — tracking down tiny little tidbits of information in order to get a scene or descriptive passage just right. But I have to say that by the time I got to revisions, most of my research was done. Certainly I had to fill in a couple of gaps, or go back to my sources to deal with those revisions that brought in new historical figures or elements. But for the most part, my research took place on the front end.
BPB: You’ve described your book as an “historical urban fantasy.” I hadn’t come across the term before, but I like it. The historical angle is pretty clear, but what is it about Thieftaker that parallels the modern urban fantasy? Were there any challenges to merging the two forms? If so, what were they?
DBJ: Yeah, “Historical Urban Fantasy.” I think my agent wants me to trademark the term…
The urban fantasy elements are both substantive and stylistic. Part of what I love about contemporary urban fantasies is the way in which those who write it make their urban settings so central to their narrative. It’s almost a cliché to say that the setting becomes something akin to another character, but behind the cliché lies an essential truth. And I think that in Thieftaker and its sequel (Thieves’ Quarry, Tor 2013) I’ve used Boston to good effect. The city in the 1760s was a bit seedy, a bit run down. A few decades before it had been Colonial North America’s leading city, but economic hard times had left it diminished. I tried to use that seediness in the story, to make the setting gritty, menacing, and thus amplify the narrative tension.
Stylistically, despite trying to capture some of the Colonial vernacular in my dialogue and prose, I also gave the book something of a noir style, so that it feels like a mid-twentieth century private eye mystery. My investigator — or thieftaker in this case — is my only point of view character. The prose is lean, the story is focused in a limited number of subplots, unlike the epic fantasies I write as David B. Coe, which are filled with sub-plots. So the book has far more in common with urban fantasy than with my older work.
Now, these stylistic choices did create a few challenges, most significant among them the fact that I was trying to write a noir mystery that would speak to a 21st century audience while setting it in a time when people spoke and thought in ways that my audience would find almost indecipherable. And so I had to sacrifice some historical verisimilitude in order to make the book as readable as possible, and in order to give it the stylistic flavor I wanted. It’s a balancing act, and one that will probably not satisfy all my readers. Some will feel that there is still too much of the Colonial Era in the way my characters speak and think; others may feel that I went too far in the other direction and lost too much of that historical feel. But overall, I feel that I got the mix about right.
BPB: It seems to me that we all learn, and in fact re-learn, as we write each successive book. What struck you most about the art of writing while you were crafting Thieftaker? What did you learn or re-learn in the course of writing it?
DBJ: More than any other book I’ve written, Thieftaker taught me that less really is more. I knew that I wanted this book to be leaner, sparser, more directed than my older work. The urban fantasy aspect of the story demanded that. Every now and then, though, I found myself falling back into epic fantasy constructions and phrasings. I had to remind myself again and again to tighten my prose.
I think this is a lesson I should have taken to heart earlier in my career, even as I was still writing epic fantasy. I got away with being a bit wordy because epic fantasies are still expected to be a bit longer, and because more elaborate descriptions have been part of the sub-genre for so long. Only with Thieftaker, though, did I hold myself to a tougher standard, and as a result, I think this book represents my best work not only in terms of character, plotting, and setting, but also in my use of language. Writing the book was incredibly rewarding, in part because I pushed myself harder than I ever had before.
BPB: I’m fascinated with the packaging of books, particularly the covers and cover design. I was lucky enough to get a sneak-peek at the cover of Thieftaker before its final incarnation. Can you share the story of its progression and any thoughts you may have on its effectiveness for the book’s target audience?
DBJ: Isn’t that cover amazing? It was done by the incredible Chris McGrath, who also did the illustration for “A Spell of Vengeance,” a Thieftaker story I recently published at Tor.com. I hope he’ll also be doing the cover for the second Thieftaker book.
This image offers absolute proof that writers should not be given artistic control over their own jacket art. I had in mind a very, very different cover for Thieftaker. I won’t tell you much about it, because frankly I’m too embarrassed to. Suffice it to say that it was nothing like this at all.
When I first saw a sketch of Chris’s concept for the cover, I was very upset. Not only did it look nothing like what I had in mind, it also was so rough that I really couldn’t tell what the final product would be like. I was afraid that my book was going to be doomed before it ever reached bookshelves. I should have known better. I should have trusted in Chris’s talent and in the vision of the great folks in the Tor art department.
As soon as I saw the finished image, I realized my mistake. It was gorgeous. It not only captured the mood of the book, it managed to tie in the historical and mystery elements with elegance and class. Most of all, it was incredibly eye-catching. Every person who has seen it has commented on what a great image it is. I couldn’t have asked for better, and I absolutely couldn’t have come up with anything comparable on my own. My only concern about it was that initially it didn’t have much to it that said “fantasy.” But when my editor and I mentioned this to Tor art, they went back to Chris, who added just a touch of magic in the hand of the standing figure. It was the perfect solution — not too much, but just enough to get the attention of fantasy readers. The final result is an image that should speak to readers who like mysteries AND historicals AND fantasies. Which is exactly what we’re after.
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, Thieftaker, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, has just been released by Tor Books. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
Bradley P. Beaulieu is the author of The Winds of Khalakovo and the upcoming novel The Straits of Galahesh. He fell in love with fantasy the moment he started reading The Hobbit in third grade. From that point on, though he tried reading many other things, fantasy became his touchstone. It was always what he came back to, and when he started to dabble in writing, fantasy–epic fantasy especially–was the type of story he most dearly wished to share. In 2006, his story, “In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat”, was voted a Notable Story by the Million Writers Award, and in 2004, he became a winner in the Writers of the Future 20 contest. Other stories have appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several DAW anthologies. Brad lives in Racine, Wisconsin, with his wife, daughter, and two cats, where he enjoys cooking spicy dishes and hiding out on the weekends with his family. For more, please visit www.quillings.com.