Monday, September 29, 2014

2014 St. George Book Festival Interview with Dan Willis

Dan Willis wrote his first work of fiction at the tender age of ten and has been creating fantastic tales ever since. Recently he wrote for the long running DragonLance series. his current project is a Steampunk Civil War series entitled, Dragons of the Confederacy, with NYT best-selling author, Tracy Hickman. Willis lives in Utah with his wife and four children.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? 
The very first time I created a story, I mean on purpose, with a beginning, a middle and an end, I was in 4th grade.  It was Mrs. Hammer’s class in Brandywine Elementary and it was Halloween.  Everyone in the class had to write a short Halloween story and, horror of horrors, read it in front of the class.  My story was three legal pages long (I still have it) and dealt with two teenagers who seek help at a creepy house when their car breaks down on a backcountry road.  With all the dramatic flair I could muster, I entitled it “ Skull Manor on Ghost Mountain. 

I realized I was on to something after I read my story.  The reading of stories took three days and I read on the second day.  My story had a headless skeleton in it, something no story had up to that point.  The following day three stories had headless skeletons in them.  Even then I understood that imitation was the most sincere form of flattery.  It was at that moment, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

Where did the inspiration for Lincoln’s Wizard come from?
I’d been writing Steampunk westerns and joked with someone that the Civil War was a time when reality and Steampunk actually coexisted.  Then, as I got thinking about that, I wondered what a more magical / Sci-Fi version of the Civil War would be.  I knew I wanted a tale of intrigue, rather than a straight up war story.  From there it was all down hill, I knew what I wanted and how to get there.

What made you choose to write a novel?
Well, I got laid off during the bursting of the tech bubble in 2001 and I remembered my 4th grade experience and thought, hey, this should be easier than, you know, working for a living.  It was a serious struggle since then and I’ve written over a dozen books to get where I am.  Yep, I’m dumb AND stubborn.

What is the main message or theme that you hope readers of this book come away from it with?
I don’t write message fiction, so nothing heavy like that.  I want readers to be entertained.  I want them to fear for the hero, to exult at his triumphs and despair at his failures and, in the end, I want them to rejoice when good triumphs over evil.  I hope they feel sad for some of the bad guys, that they were on the wrong side, and I want them to sorrow for the brave souls who died along the way. 

Who is your favorite author?
David Eddings.  I know most modern readers probably don’t even know who he is but he really influenced me as a teenaged reader.  By today’s standards, his plots are a bit trite and he used them over and over, but he could really write.  If I could write dialogue like David Eddings, I’d rule the literary world.  That man could write a 200 page book about two people sitting around a campfire talking and it would be compelling.  The plot might not be much, but you’d have so much fun reading, you wouldn’t care.

Do you have a writing routine? A special pen, a certain type of music, time limits?
I don’t have any mystic rituals, I just sit down and work.  You have to treat this like a real job or you end up surfing Facebook all day in your underwear and wonder where your week went.  I do play a mix of instrumental movie soundtracks while I work.  This helps filter out distractions but, with no lyrics to sing along with, it doesn’t steal my attention.

As for my work process, I usually try to write a chapter a day, four days a week, with a day for editing and a full day off.  Writing is bloody hard work and I’m usually tired after cranking out a chapter.  Some authors just sling words on the page and make it pretty later, but I can’t do that.  I’ll do my first edit pass as I’m writing and sometimes rework sentences or scenes several times before moving on.  That doesn’t work for some others, but it works for me.

Do you enjoy edits/rewrites, or not?
I enjoy doing an edit pass when I’m just doing the rewrites and someone else has found all the problems, that’s a breeze.  I love the editorial process.  I do edit my own work, but usually only once after I finish writing.  More edit passes after that usually don’t yield a lot of helpful things.  At that point, I have a pro do an edit pass then I rewrite based on their feedback.

For me, editing and rewriting is all about making the book better.  You should never be afraid of that.

Please tell us a little bit about your journey to publication:
My story of publication should be titled: “And they hated it.”  I met my current writing partner Tracy Hickman way back in 1985 and when I decided to get into the writing game, I gave him a call.  He told me to try my hand at writing DragonLance stories for Wizards of the Coast, so I did.  The editors there liked the original story I sent them, but weren’t interested in publishing it, so they offered me a short story in an upcoming anthology.  To say the least, I was thrilled.  So I wrote a story about  a pair of dark knights fresh from their defeat at the end of the War of Souls.  And they hated it.  Or rather they liked my characters, but hated everything else.  So, I rewrote it.  I remembered reading that American pioneers crossing the great planes for California would sometimes throw away thins like furniture, pianos, stoves, and other things they’d brought with them but realized they couldn’t afford the weight in their wagons.  So I decided that my knights were going to follow the elven kingdom, who had just fled across a desert, and pick over the leavings.  And they hated it.  Well, they like the characters and the setting, just not the story.  So, I rewrote it, added a wiseass afflicted Kender, made it funny and … say it with me … they hated it.  Or, rather, they thought it simply wasn’t funny enough, so they told me to add a sentient donkey.  I balked at this, but I liked the idea that the Kender believed the obviously non-magical donkey was intelligent and drove one of the knights crazy with his antics.  This proved to be the recipe for success and they accepted my story.

Now, I told you that story to tell you this one.  After they accepted my story, they offered me a book in their brand new Young Adult line, DragonLance: The New Adventures.  I firmly believe that I got that gig, and three more books after it (until they closed down their publishing arm) because I was eager to please, easy to work with, and I took direction.  You wouldn’t believe how many people consider themselves “Artists” instead of what they really are, which is skilled workmen.  They “stand on their principles” when they should go with the flow.  I don’t write sex scenes or graphic violence, that’s my rule, but anything else is fair game and if someone want’s to pay me to do it their way, I’m only too happy to oblige.  That’s how I got published.

What is the hardest part of being a writer?
What was the question?  Oh, yeah, staying focused.  We live in a world where everything you could ever want is literally at your fingertips.  If you don’t control yourself as a writer, you’ll drift away in a sea of information and become lost.  I have to fight that every single day.  You’d think I’d learn.

Are there any common themes that you feel are particularly important to write about?
Again, I don’t do message fiction, but that said, I write Fantasy and Steampunk (Olde Timey Science Fiction).  Those genres are steeped in the hero myth.  That means that good triumphs over evil.  I’m also a bit of a romantic, so the hero, should he or she survive, get the girl/boy and a decent shot at happiness.  Real life doesn’t always end up that way, but it should, and stories like mine are about what’s best in us.  I hate fiction that wallows in depravity and filth, I’d rather people had something to look up to.

When you're not writing, what are your other hobbies/passions?
I watch a lot of movies.  A good movie, for me, is akin to a religious experience.  I’m carried away to a magical place, meet interesting people, watch their struggles, their failures and their triumphs, then wish them well as I return to the real world.  I’m also, not surprisingly, a big fan or Dungeons and Dragons and play every week with a regular group.

Are you working on any new projects?
Well, the Dragons of the Confederacy series will run for a couple of years, so that’s going to keep me busy.  We don’t have a title for the second book yet, but it has already been written so look for it around February.  After that Tracy and I want to release a sequel, but those plans aren’t firm.  I will be writing a sequel to my first Shattered West book, The Flux Engine, and I’ve got a new original fantasy novel in the works.  I’ll be posting information regarding those projects on my website and facebook, so watch for details there.

Quick Fire round:

Coke or Pepsi?
Coke Zero (Made my magical, zero-calorie fairies)

Chocolate or Vanilla?
Depends, is it candy or ice cream?  Chocolate candy, vanilla ice cream.

Rainy winter days or blazing hot summer days?
Rain, I hate heat.

Hard Copy or e-book?
Again, that depends.  For reading, e-book, you just can’t beat the convenience.  For reference, hard copy, it’s hard to thumb through and e-book looking for that passage you highlighted.

Favorite book?
King of the Murgos by David Eddings.

Last book you read?
Hellhole Awakening by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.

What's a quote that inspires you?
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for”  ~John A. Shedd, Salt from My Attic (1928)

I love this quote, it embodies writing.  Writers bleed for you, the dark letters on the paper may have been printed, but you can rest assured they are really made from the author’s blood.  As a writer, you put yourself out into the hard, cold world and you WILL be ridiculed, insulted, marginalized, minimized, and mocked.  But stories aren’t meant to be written and put away in a drawer, they’re meant to be shared.  And, if you’re very, very lucky, someone will tell you that they read what you wrote, and they loved it, that it made them weep, that it inspired them.  Then the storms are worth it.

My other favorite quote is this:
“Originality is the art of concealing your source.” Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I said that.

What's your favorite comfort food?
Cheesy mashed potatoes (don’t ask).

 St. George Book Festival October 20-25, 2014 - Learn more at

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