TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery!
Max: Thanks! Happy to be here.
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Max: My lawyer friends encourage me not to mention the human sacrifice, so I'll go with "writing on the move." I'm busy—day job, fencing, travel, active social life—so I had to get used to writing whenever and wherever I could find time. I wrote Three Parts Dead on an AlphaSmart Neo (sort of like a graphing calculator with a keyboard attached, 800 hours of battery life), on subways, during coffee breaks, in bars, early morning at cheap hotels—wherever I could scrape a few minutes together.
TQ: Who are some of your favorite writers? Who do you feel has influenced your writing?
Max: Roger Zelazny is a huge influence. Lord of Light was one of the first sci-fi books I fell in love with. I must have read it 14 times as I was growing up. I snatch up every Zelazny book I can find, and by now I have a long bookshelf full of his work, including the excellent NESFA 6-volume set of short stories. Robin McKinley's Hero and the Crown was another pivot around which my young reading life revolved. I read that book so many times in fifth and sixth grade that when I left for middle school, the librarian gave me her copy. I also love and regularly return to Ursula K LeGuin's Earthsea books. (Haven't re-read those in a few years, though—time to dive back in!) I can't praise Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles enough, either. Vivid, crystalline writing, page-turner plots, complex characters who reveal themselves layer by layer as the series progresses, and enough research to make a team of Cambridge grad students go blind. Her books were the first I ever read that demanded I slow down enough to appreciate the writing. I owe her an immense debt for that.
I've already gone on for a while, but the full list would have to include Dan Simmons, John Crowley, Frank Herbert, and John Steinbeck, who I've been reading a lot of recently.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Max: I'm more pantser than a plotter, but I don't feel wedded to either camp. I start working with a few images fresh in my mind: scraps of character, setting, line, dramatic moments and turning points that the rest of the story drives toward. Is that a plot? Not really. More like the spine of one. Then I write desperately & expansively for about 30,000 words or so—or the first third of the target length, if I'm working on a short story. Then I step back, examine what I've done so far, and determine how various threads connect. The rest of the book is the weaving, knotting, and tying. At key stages, I'll reconsider, maybe scrap elements of the outline I'm working on, change terms, figure out what needs to happen next.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's sort of like Agile development methodology applied to a one-person project: you know your goals, you work toward them, and you keep checking back in with yourself to see how the project's developed and changed since the last meeting. Allows for more flexibility and creativity. But, then, everyone's different.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Max: I love writing, but every book I write, about 2/3 of the way through, like clockwork I have that hour of the wolf, when I'm convinced nothing I've written works. I'm wrong, but that doesn't help. So, that's a challenge. The other big challenge is changing from writing mode to editing mode: the shift from development to obsessive detail-mongering.
TQ: Describe Three Parts Dead in 140 characters or less.
Max: A god has died, and Tara, first year associate in an international necromancy firm, must bring Him back to life before His city falls apart. (A three-word longer version of this pitch actually got me my agent.)
TQ: What inspired you to write Three Parts Dead?
Max: In 2008, after two years teaching in rural China, I moved back to the States just as the economy stumbled into a meat grinder. My girlfriend (now my wife) was in law school, and I was looking for work; the collapse was a cold welcome back to urban American society, and I watched it evolve as I handed out resumes.
The sun shone, birds flew, the breeze smelled sweet, but you could see fear in the news anchors’ eyes. AIG failed. My wife’s professors started taking leaves of absence to help stem the crisis. An invisible war was being fought on a realm most of us could barely comprehend, fought by ostensibly immortal ‘persons’ without physical form, in whom hundreds of thousands of human beings had invested their lives and dreams.
These are gods, I thought, after a fashion. Pagan gods. And they’re dying.
So I decided to write a book about that.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Three Parts Dead?
Max: I was lucky enough to be living with law students, and close to some of the great centers of legal learning in America. I talked with people about their lives and work; I attended lectures on the crisis, and about possible remedies. I paid more attention to what my friends who worked in Manhattan said about their jobs. I read broadly about the economy and its last hundred years or so of development. And once I had a pretty good picture of how everything worked, I threw most of it out and wrote a book.
TQ: What is the oddest bit of information that you came across in your research?
Max: The more I came to learn about bankruptcy, the more I realized it worked like necromancy: you take a dead thing, protect it with magic circles, chop it up, rewire it according to your dread purpose, and then, when your work is done, you hook up the lightning rods and tell Igor to get cranking. That image was the seed around which the rest of the book crystallized.
TQ: Tell us something about Three Parts Dead that is not in the book description.
Max: Tara's boss, Ms. Kevarian is one of my favorite characters. Tara's taking the first steps of her journey to become a master Craftswoman; Ms. Kevarian has walked that road, and been transformed in the process. She's a window into the power, and the loss, that comes from a career of working with Powers Humankind Was Not Meant To Comprehend.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? Hardest and why?
Max: Tara was probably the easiest character to write. I know a ton of people in that stage of their life: ambitious folks starting the careers for which they've spent years preparing, and wondering whether they've chosen the right path. No character was particularly difficult to write, though I had a harder time getting into the heads of characters who were older, and those who were convinced of their position's rightness.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in Three Parts Dead?
Max: There's one scene early in the book, where Tara encounters an obstacle, and she almost shrugs, leaves, and goes on with her work and life—a decision that would have drastically changed the direction of the story. I like that scene because it's such a character moment. There's no need for her to press on. She does because she wants to, because someone's tried to stop her and she won't let them, and for a host of other internal reasons.
TQ: What's next?
Max: I've already written another book in the Craft sequence—Two Serpents Rise is due out next summer. That book expands the world, introduces new characters, and develops a number of the themes of Three Parts Dead. I'm about to start another book in the sequence, which will connect characters from the first two books; in my spare time, I'm working with a good friend on a webcomic project I hope will debut sometime around the new year, and writing a short story for an anthology. Life's the kind of busy I love: lots of creative projects, and freedom to pursue them all.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Max: My pleasure!
Three Parts Dead
Three Parts DeadCraft 1
Tom Doherty Associates / Tor Books, October 2, 2012
Hardcover and eBook, 336 pages
A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.
Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.
Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.
When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.
Set in a phenomenally built world in which justice is a collective force bestowed on a few, craftsmen fly on lightning bolts, and gargoyles can rule cities, Three Parts Dead introduces readers to an ethical landscape in which the line between right and wrong blurs.
Max’s novel Three Parts Dead will be published by Tor Books in October.
Max has taught in southern Anhui, wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat, and been thrown from a horse in Mongolia. Max graduated from Yale University, where he studied Chinese.
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