INTERVIEW: Django Wexler Talks About Publishing, Perseverance, and His New Book, THE FORBIDDEN LIBRARY

Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. Visit him online at djangowexler.com.

Django was kind enough to answer a few of my question about his new book for young readers, THE FORBIDDEN LIBRARY!


Kristin Centorcelli: Congratulations on your new book, THE FORBIDDEN LIBRARY! Will you tell us a little about it and what inspired you to write it?

Django Wexler: Thanks! The Forbidden Library is about a girl named Alice who lives in New York in 1931. She comes downstairs one evening to find her father talking to a fairy in her kitchen, and a few days later he mysteriously disappears. She’s sent to stay with an uncle named Geryon, who lives in a big house with a library she’s not allowed into. Once she sneaks in (because what self-respecting heroine wouldn’t?) things start to get really strange…

KC: What made you decide to write a book for young adults?

DW: The most basic thing that led to The Forbidden Library was that I needed something to write in the time between when I submitted The Thousand Names and the point at which it was accepted, edited, and ready for me to work on again. Talking to my agent, he suggested that I try to write something shorter — The Thousand Names is about 200,000 words long, very large for a novel, and I wouldn’t have time to work on another project that size alongside it.

I started out with a vague idea that it would be a book for younger readers, but no specific plans. The central idea was what I think of as the “sketchy Dumbledore scenario”. A lot of these young heroes and heroines have wise mentors, who are well-meaning and very powerful but, if you think about it, often end up putting their charges in serious danger! Of course Dumbledore, Gandalf, and so on have their reasons, but I wanted to explore what would happen if you didn’t entirely trust that guy — he tells you it’s all for the greater good, but how do you actually know? Alice has a couple of potential mentors, but they give her conflicting information, and she never knows quite which version of things to believe.

KC: Why do you think readers will connect with your heroine, Alice, and what did you enjoy most about writing her character?

DW: Alice is absolutely wonderful to work with. Most of all, she’s very smart and very practical. She tends not to spend a lot of time moping or waiting for things to happen; when there’s a problem, even if the solution is a long way away, she buckles down and gets started. It makes her a lot of fun to write, and hopefully a lot of fun to read.

A big part of the appeal of this kind of book to me is seeing how the characters will get out of situations using the tools at their disposal. Alice starts out with only her wits and a sarcastic talking cat to rely on, but as she gains new abilities of the course of the book, I had a lot of fun figuring out interesting ways for her to use them.

KC: You’re known for your SHADOW CAMPAIGNS series. What differed most for you in writing that series and in writing THE FORBIDDEN LIBRARY, other than this book is for the younger set?

DW: I’m a big believer in respecting the intelligence of kids, so I tried hard not to make this book feel “dumbed down” at all. Once I figured out I was writing for children, my rule was to write the way I normally do, except leaving out the sex, the swearing, and the explicit violence. That worked fairly well — we changed a few words in editing, but nothing too major. The biggest difference is that The Forbidden Library is structurally a lot simpler than something like The Thousand Names. There’s only one point of view, one continuous line of narrative without a lot of complicated mucking about in time or space. It’s refreshing to work with, actually.

KC: What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

DW: Once upon a time I was an avowed pantser and hated outlining, but at this point I’ve been more or less converted to the other side. My publishers wanted outlines for the rest of the books in the series, both for The Shadow Campaigns and The Forbidden Library, and after writing those I found that while the process of outlining was still difficult for me, I thought it improved the end result a lot. These days, I tend to work from a fairly detailed outline, but The Forbidden Library got started as something a lot more primitive. As a result, it’s probably had more rewriting than anything else I’ve written to date — my editor and I went through a lot of drafts!

KC: What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading, fantasy?

DW: Hmm, good question! I like world-building, obviously, it’s one of the thing that separates fantasy as a genre from its cousins. When I’m reading fantasy, I tend to just appreciate clever, interesting designs for their own sake, but when writing there’s a little bit more to it. The wonderful thing about fantasy, to me, is that you can gently tweak the world of the story to make it work the way you need it to work — the world can act as a sort of lens, focusing and amplifying the character and story you want to work with.

For example, in The Forbidden Library, I knew I wanted to have magic that revolved around books and people who could go in and out of them, but I went through many versions of the specific design of the magic system until I got one that most usefully enabled the kind of story I want to tell. (A crucial distinction here: their world should be convenient for you as an author — you want it be helping you, not fighting you — but never too convenient for the characters! Nobody likes a deus ex machina.) Similarly, one major reason that story is set in 1931 instead of the modern day is that inventions like photocopiers, computers, and cell phones would wreak havoc on a magic system that is already complicated enough!

KC: Have you read any good books recently?

DW: Quite a few! I finished Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, which is a wonderfully bizarre fantasy in a world I absolutely adore, and immediately went out to get the sequel. I had the chance to read Felix Gilman’s The Revolutions as an ARC, and now that it’s out I highly recommend it to everyone — it’s got Victorian occultism and a strange journey to Mars. A little further back, I tore through Andy Weir’s The Martian in two sittings, and it was only two because it got so late I couldn’t keep my eyes open!

KC: You’re a *fairly* newly published author. What advice would you give to a struggling writer, and what’s been one of the most important things you’ve learned since getting published?

DW: The thing that has most surprised me about publishing is how slow everything is. By the time a book comes out, the actual writing of it feels like ancient history. (For example, I have already written Shadow Campaigns #2 and The Forbidden Library #2, and I’m working on Shadow Campaigns #3 now!) There are good reasons for this, but the waiting can be interminable. On the positive side, though, my experiences meeting other writers have been universally excellent, and I feel like I’ve made an enormous number of new friends since I got into this business.

For struggling writers: the most important thing is simply not giving up. The second most important thing is actually finishing projects — when I hear that someone has “a novel” that they’ve been working on for five years, I’m usually skeptical; when someone tells me they’ve just finished their fifth book and started on another, that’s a person who is going to succeed sooner or later. (Not that the first person can’t, of course. But “not finishing” is the big hurdle.) Depending on how you count semi-finished projects, The Thousand Names was either my eighth or ninth book, and I think a lot of writers have similar stories.

Also, it’s a very confusing world in publishing these days, and frantic internet debates on the virtues of self-publishing versus traditional publishing are not helping with that. It’s not something I like to weigh in on, except to say that things are still in flux — anybody who claims to have all the answers is almost certainly wrong, and things today aren’t what they were even two years ago or will be two years in the future. I encourage people to try things, but also not to close off options if they can help it. (And be very, very careful with anyone who asks you for money!)

KC: What’s next for you?

DW: It’s going to be a busy year! As I type this, I’m printing my boarding pass to head down to WonderCon in Anaheim, and I’ll be at Phoenix ComicCon in June and San Diego ComicCon in July. Around then, The Shadow Throne, sequel to The Thousand Names, will come out, which I’m really looking forward to finally getting to show people! In August we should have the print edition of my novella John Golden, Freelance Debugger, too.

As far as writing goes, I’m revising the sequel to The Forbidden Library, which we expect out in winter of next year, and then working on writing the third book of The Shadow Campaigns. There’s also some short stories, here and there, most of them for projects I can’t talk about yet — check my website or my twitter as we go along!