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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Zachary Jernigan

Zachary Jernigan is so frightening to look at he borrowed a baby for his author photos just to sell more books. He is the author of what may well be one of the last books from Night Shade, the fantasy novel No Return. He credits his success to resemblance to Telly Savalas and Mr. Clean and his fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Crossed Genres, and MBraneSF. A quarter-Hungarian from Northern Arizona, his enjoys punk and post-punk music, cooking and eating unhealthy foods and arguing on the internet. He can be found online at, on Twitter as @JerniganZachary and on Facebook.

SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in SFF come from?

Zachary Jernigan: Well, it came from having a hole in my life where religion was, I think. No, I’m not joking.

SFFWRTCHT: So you’re saying you left religion and turned to Science Fiction and Fantasy?

ZJ: Sort of, yes. I needed a thing to take my mind to amazing places. I’d never been a big believer, but I wanted to. In other words, science fiction allowed my mind to see broad horizons, to conceive of the numinous. I’m obsessed with religion, though I’m not a believer. Good SF asks many of the same questions.

SFFWRTCHT: Who are some of your favorite authors and influences?

ZJ: Zelazny’s early novels, as well as Delany’s. Any work that constructs or speculates on mythology.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?

ZJ:  Well, it took an awfully long time. I denied the need for many years. I would begin to write stories and stop.  And then, finally, in my later twenties, I’d had enough of self-disgust and just started writing.

SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?

ZJ: Um… Observation? I think that’s the largest part of it, but I did eventually get an MFA in creative fiction.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with shorts stories, novels? When was your first pro-sale?

ZJ: Short stories. Novels scared me. Hell, they still do. My first pro sale was to Asimov’s in 2011.

SFFWRTCHT: What was your path to publication like? Long and arduous? How long did you struggle until your first sale?

ZJ: Well, it was fairly short, honestly. I think this is because, all those years I hated myself for not writing… I sort of was writing, you know? What I mean is that I was always thinking about writing, obsessing over it even. That taught me a lot about writing.

SFFWRTCHT: No Return is the story of a land where a fighting contest is being held and people traveling to compete. The world is fantasy but with a non-European traditional feel. There are mages and an automaton and even a God some worship. Where’d the idea come from?

ZJ: That’s a tough question to answer. Seriously, I don’t remember. Oh, right: I thought “Space Opera without Science.” That vision expanded over time (and sort of contracted), but that was the impetus.  I never thought I’d write a journey novel, or anything with so much fighting, honestly. Would you really call it a fantasy, Bryan? I’m interested — that would be the primary genre, you think?

SFFWRTCHT: To me, it has that feel but science fantasy might be more appropriate. It’s adventure fantasy I think. It’s interesting because didn’t you tell me before that you don’t even enjoy journey stories that much?

ZJ: I do like journey fantasy, actually, but I think it often lumbers. I think my book lumbers a bit. The space opera part shrunk and the fantasy part took over.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a bit about some of the more unique aspects of your world. There are several states correct?

ZJ: Yes. They are fairly stable and ancient, by Earth standards. I wanted it to have a feel of immense age. I also wanted them to have an unusual source of trade. Plus, magic created by using corpses — corpsomancy?

SFFWRTCHT: From where did you draw influences for your world, characters, mythology and magic system?

ZJ: I’m very conscious of paying homage to New Wave American SFF authors.  I also feel like I’m writing very derivative fiction, and that’s not a bad thing. I love SFF literature. I write science fiction and/or fantasy. I’m not slipstream, no way. I’m all in it, baby.

SFFWRTCHT: Your POV characters are Vedas, Berun, Churli, Ebn and Pol. Tell us about Vedas, Berun and Churli and who they are.

ZJ: Vedas is a naive zealot. Churls is a mercenary. (She’s my favorite.) Berun is made of bronze spheres. They each represent a trinity of conflicting and complimentary traits.

SFFWRTCHT: Berun is an automaton/mechanical man. And Vedas, Churls and Berun spend the journey traveling together and trying to decide if they like each other.

ZJ: Yeah. That’s a big part of it. I like making — making! — people like me, so I guess that’s an outgrowth. I love stories of people coming to terms, coming to care for one another.  I’m a big softy in more ways than one.  But I take criticism like a champ! I should: I get criticized a lot, and for good reason.

SFFWRTCHT: What was your inspiration for Berun? I find the evolving relationship he has with his creator fascinating.

ZJ: Well, robots in general were a huge influence. The determinism question, in particular. It’s fascinating. I mean, we all want to be our own people and struggle to feel as if we are. He represents that.

SFFWRTCHT: As a mechanical man, he has a mode of release unique from the others. Was it hard to come up with?

ZJ: Not really. It just made sense. Even robots need a little release, and the separation of his bronze spheres seemed to make some sense.

SFFWRTCHT: Pol and Ebn are an interesting example as far as one liking the other and the other indifferent. Tell us about Ebn and Pol, the mages, with Pol being a main antagonist.  

ZJ: I had a hard time writing them. Neither is all that likable. And Ebn’s attraction (unreturned) was painful to write.

SFFWRTCHT: Ebn is the head mage and Pol is a scientist of sorts?

ZJ: Correct. They’re both alchemical astronauts. She is the leader, he the follower, though he doesn’t follow too well.

SFFWRTCHT: How does magic work in your world? What are some of the rules?

ZJ: Oh, right. *evil grin* I honestly, sadly, never thought of rules. I just wanted people to make magic with corpses. Of course, I hope it appears like there are rules somewhere.

SFFWRTCHT: How did you originally plot out the story? Did you always see it through all those points of view?

ZJ: I wrote out a plot, and then partitioned it up between the five POVs. I originally intended for each chapter to be 3000 words almost exactly. If I don’t place boundaries on what I’m doing, I don’t write at all.

SFFWRTCHT: You tell the story with a lot of sexual references from arousals to encounters to solo perf. Why?

ZJ: I think sex is an interesting topic, and undeniably a factor in most people’s story. It just made sense.  Plus, I very much wanted No Return to be adult fiction, suitable for adults. Probably because I’m a pervert.

SFFWRTCHT: I can’t believe we’re going there, but I suppose we ought to prepare people. You used masturbation many ways in your novel – to aid magic, illustrate affection, etc. What drew you to it as a narrative tool?

ZJ: Haha. I’m tempted to give a salacious answer. (Like, “Experience, man. Duh.”) But really it was just fun. Plus, I think masturbation is an interesting act. I think it could very well spur creativity.

SFFWRTCHT: So you’re your own muse. That’s unique for sure. Outliner or pantser?

ZJ: A combo. I knew where each chapter was going ultimately, but had no clue how to get there. I mean, it was fun. Discovery is awesome. But it was also stressful not knowing my exact course.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or silence?

ZJ: No tools — just my tears. I use Word. I can’t listen to music and right. I am a hothouse orchid in my delicacy. I’m being serious. It takes an act of massive will for me to sit and write. Any distraction, well it… distracts me.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did the novel take to write? It’s standalone but any plans to revisit the world/characters?

ZJ: First draft, about six months. Then another year and a half of odd revisions until it sold.  I think it is a standalone, but most disagree, and I kind of disagree with myself. I will write a sequel if I have a contract. I want to, badly. I want to challenge myself in that way.

SFFWRTCHT: Was the title easy to come up with? Do people misinterpret it?

ZJ: Yeah, the title was easy, though how I arrived at it makes no sense. It’s from a song by the band Brakes. It’s called “No Return,” and I was in the car one day and I was like, “Yep, that’s the title.” Song has no relevance.

SFFWRTCHT: Any writing quirks? Time of day, food/bev., specific place, etc.

ZJ: I write better if I start early in the day. I only eat muffins while I write. And… in a cardboard box. In all seriousness, I just need quiet. And coffee. Coffee helps.

SFFWRTCHT: Best and worst writing advice?

ZJ: Best: Write for yourself first. Worst: Write all the time, everywhere, constantly.

SFFWRTCHT: Okay, what are you working on that we can look forward to in the future?

ZJ: I have two short stories coming out soon in Tim Marquitz anthologies. Also, I daily make an ass of myself on Facebook.

About Bryan Thomas Schmidt (68 Articles)
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and Hugo-nominated editor of adult and children's speculative fiction. His debut novel, THE WORKER PRINCE received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club's Year's Best Science Fiction Releases. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. As book editor he is the main editor for Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta's WordFire Press where he has edited books by such luminaries as Alan Dean Foster, Tracy Hickman, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Jean Rabe and more. He was also the first editor on Andy Weir's bestseller THE MARTIAN. His anthologies as editor include SHATTERED SHIELDS with co-editor Jennifer Brozek and MISSION: TOMORROW, GALACTIC GAMES (forthcoming) and LITTLE GREEN MEN--ATTACK! (forthcoming) all for Baen, SPACE BATTLES: FULL THROTTLE SPACE TALES #6, BEYOND THE SUN and RAYGUN CHRONICLES: SPACE OPERA FOR A NEW AGE. He is also coediting anthologies with Larry Correia and Jonathan Maberry set in their New York Times Bestselling Monster Hunter and Joe Ledger universes. From December 2010 to June 2015, he hosted #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer's Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter as @SFFWRTCHT.
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