Back in June, I reviewed Bitterwood which fast became one of my favorites books of the year. Author James Maxey agreed to an interview… and an extra bonus:
Check back tomorrow to enter a giveaway for a signed copy of Bitterwood!

Angela/SciFiChick: For those who haven’t read Bitterwood yet, can you give us a brief synopsis?

James Maxey: Bant Bitterwood’s family was killed by dragons twenty years before the novel begins. Since then, he’s led a silent and deadly campaign of revenge against the dragons who rule his world, striking from the shadows whenever the opportunity arises. Bitterwood has become a legendary figure; a hero to humans, a bogeyman to dragons, but no one is even certain if he’s real. Some dragons think that any human who kills a dragon just places the blame on the mythical figure. When the novel opens, the dragon king Albekizan’s favorite son is killed and Bitterwood is blamed. Albekizan decides that there’s only one certain way to rid his kingdom of the danger of Bitterwood–by killing every last human in the kingdom. The novel unfolds against a backdrop of impending genocide as a small handful of humans and dragons work to avert the tragedy.

Angela: How did you decide to make dragons such major characters in your story?

JM: Dragons are just cool! I didn’t want them to be simply big scaly monsters. The story is more dramatic because my dragons are capable of love and anger, hope and despair. If a dragon were to pick it up and read Bitterwood, he’d be able to think he’d be reading a book where the dragons are the protagonists and Bitterwood is just a terrorist. It’s not a book with clear-cut lines of right and wrong; hopefully readers will find some of the moral situations within it thought provoking. To me, the greatest drama happens not by setting good guys up against cartoonish bad guys, but to pit sympathetic characters with conflicting yet understandable goals against each other.

Angela: In Bitterwood, we get some major surprises about the past and how the dragons came to rule. Will you be exploring more about that in future installments?

JM: You betcha! I give a lot of hints as to the origins of dragons in Bitterwood. A few years back I wrote an unpublished novel that is the prequel to Bitterwood, a tale set at the very dawn of the Dragon Age. So, I’m using a lot of that back story to fill in the history and lore of the world in the second book, Dragon Forge. I’m especially excited to flesh out the cultures of the sky-dragons and earth-dragons. I can’t wait until readers get a glimpse of earth-dragon child care practices! More importantly, I also get to expand on the human culture. Humanity exists in the first book as this mostly faceless, oppressed mass. The two humans with the largest role in the first book, Jandra and Pet, spend more time in the company of dragons than in the company of other humans. This time I’ll be giving the reader a more representative slice of humanity.

Angela: Which actors would you choose to play the (human) characters in a Bitterwood movie, if they gave you free reign? I’m guessing the dragons would be CGI…

JM: I honestly haven’t given it all that much thought. I think I would be happy with Nicholas Cage as Bitterwood. Shandrazel should be voiced by Ira Glass! (Shan is just so damn sincere….) Don’t have a clue who should play Pet or Jandra. Vendevorex would be the tough voice to fill; Garrison Keilor, maybe? He can pull of that introspective, hesitant voice that can turn authoritative when the role calls for it. (You may deduce I listen to a lot of NPR.) Of course, to really cast the movie properly I would need a time machine: I can’t imagine a better voice for the prophet Hezekiah in full voice-of-God mode than the late, great Johnny Cash.

Oh, and Blaphet sounds just like Anthony Hopkins.

Angela: How long did it take you to write your first novels?

JM: I first made it to print in 2003 with a quirky superhero novel called Nobody Gets the Girl. I wrote the first draft of Nobody in a feverish 45 day marathon. Bitterwood took much longer; I actually wrote the first draft years ago, before I had fully developed my writing style. I set it aside back then, feeling like I had a good story but I wasn’t yet strong enough as a writer to do the tale full justice. I set myself a goal of returning to the novel after I was published in one of the big SF mags like Asimov’s. And, fifty short stories later, I actually made it into that fine publication. I returned to this old work, found it was still solid, and rewrote it with a greater degree of polish than I had been capable of ten year ago, which led to my getting an agent, which led to the book seeing print. In a nice bit of framing, I got the offer from Solaris for Bitterwood just as my second story in Asimov’s was seeing print.

Angela: According to your blog, you’ve been hard at work on a sequel to Bitterwood. Can you tell us anything about it?

JM: The first book ended with a hopeful promise that humans and dragons could work together to form a more just world, with the various species living in peace as equals. That promise gets broken fairly quickly in the second book, and the seeds of revolution are building among the humans. For centuries, the sun-dragons have maintained their power by building armies of earth-dragons to enforce their will. And, for centuries, the earth-dragons have thrived in a fortress called Dragon Forge. This is a town where all the rusting relics of the ruined civilization that the dragons dwell among are melted down in great foundries and turned into the armor and weapons. Human rebels, led by the fanatic prophet Ragnar, are now plotting to seize Dragon Forge in order to supply a human army.

While the rebellion builds, we also get to follow the continuing stories of several returning characters (more on them in a second), as well as a slew of new dragons pursuing their own agendas in the absence of a strong king.

Angela: Can you tell us what characters will be returning?

JM: Blasphet, the Murder God, is back, plotting further genocide. Bitterwood and Zeeky return for a plotline in which Zeeky tries to discover the fate of her lost family. Jandra’s back, wearing Vendevorex’s helmet, with her powers vastly expanded, to the point that they may be too dangerous for her to control. And, Pet is back, dealing with the fact that a lot of humans–as well as a lot of dragons–still believe that he’s the real Bitterwood. All of these characters get swept up into the building war between the dragons and humankind.

Angela: What’s up next for you after finishing the sequel?

JM: Book three! About which, I can give very few hints. As readers discovered in Bitterwood, a fairly high percentage of my characters might not make it out of the second book alive. I’d hate to show my hand as to who lives and who dies by revealing who makes it to the next book.

After that, I need to discuss with my agent and publisher where I’ll go from there. If there’s a fourth book in the Bitterwood world, I’d be most interested in jumping back in time a few years and telling the history of some of my favorite characters such as Vendevorex or Blasphet. Jandra learns a little more about Vendevorex’s origins in the second book, but there’s enough material in his back story I could fill a novel. The thought of writing a novel of a young Blasphet in which he’s the protagonist also has a certain appeal.

I’m also excited that there’s been a few successful superhero novels to have seen print recently, most notably Soon I Will Be Invincible. I would love to write more superhero novels; I’m a comic book geek at heart.

Angela: Who are some of your favorite authors? What books do you love?

JM: I’ve always liked fiction with a humorous take; I prefer Douglas Adams over Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchet over Tolkien. I especially like Pratchet because, while he writes humorous stories, he doesn’t skimp on plot and characters. Things are actually at stake in his novels, and he can make you care about his offbeat and non-heroic protagonists. I also read a lot of non-fiction; books about biology and physics and ecology. I jokingly call this “research” but the reality is I’d be reading it anyway. I’m currently rereading Stephen Gould’s The Flamingo’s Smile. Pondering the possibilities of biology within the limits set by biology is a fascinating topic that actually shaped the creation of my dragon species.

Angela: What do you do when you’re not writing? In your spare time?

JM: Between my day job and writing, spare time is a fairly rare thing. Probably the most relaxing thing I do is simply hanging out with friends, sitting around at a good Mexican restaurant and arguing about politics.

Angela: Thanks for your time! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JM: Why, yes, yes there is. For readers who can’t wait for Dragon Forge to come out next summer, I want to mention there’s a very important tale of the Dragon Age in the upcoming Solaris Book of New Fantasy, now available for preorder. It’s the story of how Vendevorex came to be accepted into the court of Albekizan and his first encounter with Jandra. Readers of the tale will discover which member of the human cast of Bitterwood and Dragon Forge that Jandra is related to even though she doesn’t know it. And, of course, the anthology also has stories by many other fine authors, such as Steven Savile, Tim Pratt, and Jay Lake.

Thanks for your time as well!

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