A Brilliant New Talent: J.M. McDermott
Debut novels are supposed to be creatures of a kind of limited, quicksilver brilliance: honest and earnest and showing flashes of talent. J.M. McDermott has eschewed that approach, producing the stunning Last Dragon, a kind of collaged swords-and-sorcery tale that owes as much to Gene Wolfe and the magic realists as to Fritz Leiber or George R.R. Martin. In fact, it uses a technique similar to that of Steve Erickson in his highly-acclaimed Zeroville from last year: short, sharp chapters that allow the reader room to make the book their own even as there's still a great sense of the dangerous and the surreal. It's the kind of triumph that any writer in mid-career would be proud of. As Paul Witcover wrote in a recent Sci Fi Weekly review, "this extraordinary first novel traces the labyrinthine history of a dying ruler whose patchy memories of the past swerve from the vivid to the unreliable in a hypnotic tangle of stark realism and impressionistic fantasy that has the visionary power of a fever dream. The comparison goes only so far, however. McDermott is not writing magic realism but robust fantasy, investing the traditional subject matter of the genre—magic, dragons, golems and more—with high literary craftsmanship." You can read a sample chapter on the publisher's webpage for the novel.
Who is J.M. McDermott and where did he come from? These were just two of the questions I set out to answer when I interviewed the author earlier this month...
Amazon.com: Please describe where you are while you're answering these questions.
McDermott: I'm in a webcafe in Arlington, Texas. I'm staring out the window at all these cars driving somewhere. I'm listening to lots of people saying hello and good-bye, and I'm thinking how all of us left our cubicles to set up tiny cubicles at the desks all over this cafe. Four people are here with me, all of us strangers from each other, hiding from our day jobs, and staring at laptop screens, as if we came here to get out of the office. There's a table in the corner with Cranium, Taboo, Cadoo, two kinds of Monopoly, Chess, Scrabble and Risk. I wish I wouldn't be considered crazy for trying to get everyone to abandon their laptops for a game of Scrabble. If you ever see me in a cafe, people of the Amazon, ask me to play a game with you. I'll probably say yes. I like games. I like meeting new people.
Amazon.com: When did you start writing and tell us a little bit about your background?
McDermott: I was always a nose-in-a-book kind of kid. I was always reading something. I think, though, that the moment I stopped being just a reader and something more was when I read The First Two Lives of Lukas Kasha by Lloyd Alexander, when I was about ten or eleven. It was the first book I had ever read that left my imagination on fire. I couldn't seem to get over it. I walked around in a daze for days, amazed at this feeling inside of my skull. I crossed over to the other side of the paper and ink, right then. I've been scribbling away ever since....I got a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. I did a touch of graduate school, but it didn't stick. I get up; I go to work; I go home. When I'm not working, I'm plotting get-rich-quick schemes that inevitably fail before they start. Also, I write.
Amazon.com: Tell us a little bit about your writing process. When do you write? Longhand? On the computer?
McDermott: I call it the hummingbird method. I have the attention span of a hyperactive hummingbird. Whatever I'm writing has to be more interesting to me than the entire internet, my entire library of books and DVDs, whatever my friends are doing, whatever else I could be doing. If what I am writing is not the most interesting thing in the world to me, I won't write it. I'll go do something more interesting. Also, I tend to wander around my apartment, my city, my world. I don't like sitting in the same physical location day after day to write. Right now, I'm in this cafe and it's half an hour from where I live, but it's somewhere new to my pen. I like staying out of ruts, and breaking up patterns. I wander the world when I can, too. I write the whole way. I do my best work when I'm jetlagged.
Amazon.com: What provided the spark or inspiration for Last Dragon?
McDermott: That's an excellent question. Whatever it was, it was in 2002. It's been six years since then. I've started and ended multiple careers. I've fallen in and out of love countless times. I've been to four foreign countries--one of them twice. Whatever spark I had disappeared into broken computers, lost computer disks and notebooks that have been abandoned in one of the many moves between homes I've done. What I know is that I was writing about a sense of duty. I was writing about what it felt like to be alive right then, on this planet.
Amazon.com: Did you intend to use a slightly experimental structure, or did that occur naturally?
McDermott: I wanted to take epic fantasy somewhere it has never been. I called it "anti-epic" fantasy at the time. I don't really know what to call it. Certainly, if you are looking for a book like anything Wizards of the Coast has done before with their media tie-ins, you will not find it in my little book. Fantasy is not a genre that traditionally values experimentation. Usually, fantasy--especially epic fantasy--is where readers want good to conquer evil and true love to be won and all that. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a little mental comfort food now and then, but I hungered to read the kind of fantasies that take these particular tools and tropes and attempt to make an art form out of them. Not everyone is going to like this kind of fantasy. That's okay. I hope that enough people are out there, like me, that want to sink their teeth into a fantasy novel that honestly - arrogantly--strives for high artistry.
Amazon.com: What do you most love about the fantasy fiction you read?
McDermott: My academic background was in Creative Writing programs. One thing that I noticed in these programs is how stale short fiction had become in the "serious" literary magazines, and how astonishing short fiction can be in our genre magazines. We do just as much art as everyone else. We also have buckets and buckets of fun doing it. Our art is not tortured, and our artists are usually having too much fun at SF conventions to feel alienated. We rock. We throw better parties. We're more fun to hang out with at bars. When we hold conversations we talk about Werewolves and Plate-mail as much as we talk about the existential vacuum and the ways [in which] material reality creates civilizations. Also, I think we're experiencing a renaissance in fantasy fiction. I'm very excited to be alive and reading books right now, today. I hesitate to give you any names, though, because I am terrified I'd leave someone worthy out.
Amazon.com: What are you currently working on?
McDermott: I'm finishing up a little trilogy right now that is--I hope--utterly different from Last Dragon. Three children of demons discover each other in a city that would burn them alive for the crime of existing. The demon stain marks their life very differently. For social outcasts and the working poor, it takes heroics just to lead a normal life. I'll leave the description at that, for now. Other then that, I like to write short fiction. Check out Coyote Wild Magazine, Atomjack Magazine, and Pseudopod for some of my latest short stories. I particularly recommend Coyote Wild Magazine because a couple of the other stories in the issue with mine are really, really exceptional.