Here I was, creeping on Facebook, when this random stranger posts a message in a group I’d joined talking about what it’s like to be a self-published author. So, I figured, what the heck, and responded to his response which he then responded to and it was just one big long chain message after that and boy am I glad that I took the time to write that first post.
Jake Kerr…I don’t even know where to begin. He’s been such a help, quite an inspiration, and someone who offers advice because he loves what he does, and wants others to love it too. That’s someone to aspire to, and I’m so glad that he was willing to take a few moments and answer some interview questions for me.
Okay, so let’s get the mundane questions out of the way first: how/why did you start writing?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. In fact, I chose my college based on the strength of its English program. But there is a difference between wanting to be a writer and writing. It took me a very long time to learn to love to write more than loving the idea of being a writer. So I finished my first story in 2010. I finished my first novel in 2014.
What do you mean by you “learned to love to write?”
Well, I struggled for over twenty years with the frustration that my daydreams and the fantasies and stories in my head were so much better than what I put down on paper. So I loved the idea of the person who could take those daydreams and just share them with people without this ruinous process of actually writing them down on paper. Over time I learned that it is different, daydreaming from writing, and after quite a bit of trial and error I found a special place where I really enjoy the act of writing. Perhaps interestingly, I’m not nearly as interested in “being” a writer these days. I just like to write.
But you don’t really just write one type of thing. Your stories are fantastical, mysterious, horrific (at least some of the elements in them). Do you label yourself as a certain type of writer? Which, I suppose in the broader sense, is asking how do you deal with genre, especially now with your Tommy Black series?
That’s a good question and one that actually dovetails with what I outlined in terms of learning to love to write. My focus now is on just enjoying myself. So I’m writing two concurrent fantasy series—Tommy Black, and The Guildmaster Thief—while spending November working on a science fiction novel. I’m very much looking forward to writing three more novels, one a kind of genepunk kind of SF novel, one a romantic thriller, and one a contemporary thriller. I may end up writing the romance thriller under a name like J.M. Kerr or something, but for the most part I deal with it by just enjoying myself.
And Tommy Black is a young adult novel, a coming of age story. Not only that, but it’s based around historical fact and fantastical adventures. HOW?! Where did the inspiration for this story come from? (Ignore the slack jaw near-envy of my question)
There are a few pieces to this answer. The origin of the novel was a writing exercise I did with my writer’s group here in Dallas. In what I’m sure will amuse some, I was known within the group as a contemporary and mystery writer, as that was what I was working with when I joined. The exercise was to work outside your comfort zone in a genre you haven’t worked with. I was assigned fantasy. So I wrote the first chapter as the exercise.
Next I just started writing it out and seeing where the adventure went. There was no plot. There was no real idea where I was going. The setting was pure random chance, as it arose from the exercise, and the historical pieces seemed fun. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeous series was a clear inspiration in my use of djinn and ifrit and marids. In fact, the explosive spell is named after the spell that Stroud used in his series. At some point I made the decision to actually get off my duff and do some research, and when I did I realized that the historical elements could help the narrative. So Tommy’s grandfather refers to actual World War One battles, and the magical history of Persia is written to mirror the historical history. More than anything, those things made the book even more fun to write.
What’s it like writing for young adults? And, this goes back to the genre question, do you think you have to label the novel as YA? I think it has, as most labeled novels do, wide spread appeal, so I guess I’m really asking if when you started this novel, you wanted it to appeal to a younger readership, or if it is meant to appeal to everyone?
I wrote the novel to appeal to the thirteen year old me, the one who loved reading about John Carter of Mars and the Dragonriders of Pern and countless other books that thrilled me. It is not entirely YA, as it is more innocent than most YA today, so I guess it is better to categorize it as middle grade with touches of YA.
That said, I certainly hope that readers of all ages would enjoy it, although I have no illusions that its simplicity would strike many adults as less thrilling than something like A Game of Thrones. But it’s an action adventure tale, and I think everyone enjoys those in some form or fashion.
So The Guildmaster Thief series…who did you write that story for?
Well, the glib answer is that I wrote it for myself, but, of course, I think others will enjoy it. So I guess I wrote it for people who like huge Wheel of Time-like slow-building fantasy. Although I did want to handle it in more self-contained episodic fashion, so I’m releasing it in smaller pieces that all have a beginning, middle, and end.
The original inspiration of the book came from this idea that this mischievous boy is put in charge of a mythical guild that doesn’t really exist. It is done as a punishment—he is given this illusion of power but is actually impotent--but then we start to find out little clues that it is maybe not so mythical and his position isn’t without power.
The fictional inspiration for the book is the seminal indie comic Cerberus. That was a book that started out as a goofy send-up of serious comics but over time became a complex fantasy world with political machinations and a rich history. That’s my goal with The Guildmaster Thief. You start with this delinquent kid getting punished and that leads to some crazy adventures, but then he is slowly drawn into a world of politics, dusty history that has been hidden for centuries, and dark secrets. Also, there is a cast of characters, not just the story of the Guildmaster. Book three is entirely about a young female thief, who is sent on a mission for the guild.
I see the series going on for a fairly long time, and I’ll be writing it in short episodic novellas that will be collected into novels. So there will be three story arcs: The novella story arc that is roughly self-contained, the novel story arc that will cover four novellas, and then the epic story arc that covers the secret history of the Thieves Guild and what it means for Ralan and his friends. Readers can jump in at any time. They can wait for the novels, read the episodes, or wait until I have a few novels done and dig into the series that way.
Now, I have to ask, Kenyon College…as in Kenyon College in Ohio? And Ursula K. Le Guin?! I don’t suppose either the Harry Potter aspect of the college campus or the sheer brilliance of the writer-in-residence you worked with influenced your writing style?
I was enormously influenced by Kenyon. It is possibly the best college in the country to learn how to write, and it is due to this enormous respect for literature and those that create it. I mean, look at it this way: Caleb Carr graduated before me, I was classmates with Laura Hillenbrand, Jenna Blum graduated after Laura and me, John Green graduated a few years after her, and then Ransom Riggs graduated after him. That doesn’t even include Bill Watterson, the great comic artist and writer, or film maker and writer Josh Radnor. All great story tellers.
Le Guin was really wonderful. The thing I remember most was this sheer joy she had in the worlds she created. She didn’t just write about them, she inhabited them. She had just released Always Coming Home, and the way she described the world in which her characters lived was enthralling. She was positively joyful over the fact that a release of the book would include the music of the culture she describes in the novel. I call upon that when I write the historical elements in Tommy Black or I think of the economic reality of a city-state like Ness in The Guildmaster Thief. I will never be as good as Ursula Le Guin, but I can obviously be inspired by her.
As a final note, I know, there were a lot of questions, but do you have any advice for writers old and new?
I think writing advice is different depending on where you are in your creative life. For young readers who want to be writers, I would recommend simply reading more and reading broadly. There really is no better path to being a writer than knowing how others succeed at it. For older writers, I wish I had better advice, but mine is simple: Get in the habit. Write every day. At some point, what may seem a chore will be something you look forward to.
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me and I’m so excited about Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility. When is it coming out and where can I find a copy of it?
It will be out in the second week of December in both paperback and ebook versions, which you will be able to find at all major online booksellers.
And where can readers go to learn more about you?
My website is www.jakekerr.com. At Twitter I’m @jakedfw, and on Facebook you can find me at /authorjakekerr.
If you would like a free copy of my short story collection, with introductions by Hugh Howey, John Joseph Adams, Ken Liu, and Brian White, sign up for my mailing list here: https://ctpress.leadpages.net/selected-stories-by-jake-kerr-free/.
The first volume of The Guildmaster Thief is free, and each subsequent volume is 99 cents. You can find the series page on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Guildmaster-Thief-3-Book/dp/B016YGCHYU/.
Tommy Black and The Coat of Invincibility:
Available December 15, 2015
It's two years later, and Tommy has mastered the Staff of Light. However, as he was freeing magical creatures to reshape his family's legacy Germany was invading Europe. Finding himself on a mission for the British government to free the magical creatures of Nazi Germany and disrupt their war efforts, Tommy once again enlists the help of his friend, the powerfu magician Naomi. Together they discover an extraordinary secret that changes everything--Tommy may not be the only Archmage in the world.
*As a special treat, readers who have the first Tommy Black book can download an advance reading sample of the first three chapters of Tommy Black and The Coat of Invincibility here: https://ctpress.leadpages.co/tommyblack/.