An Interview With Elliott James on CHARMING
What made you want to become an author?
The same things that make anyone want to become an author, really. A combination of crippling loneliness, habitual lying, greed, and delusions of grandeur. I mean, I could slather it on about how the imagination is the key to freeing the mind and all that, but let’s face it, ultimately it all comes down to the wild parties, the women, and the limos full of cash. Speaking of which, when are those getting here anyway? [Looks at watch.] Plus I like to read.
When did you start writing?
At the age of five. It was kindergarten, and I penned an opus about a backward planet where cows gave chocolate milk (I’m not sure how that’s backward, but it made sense at the time) and grown-ups went to school to get away from their jobs and learn how to play from kids. The thing I still think is kind of cool about that story is that every word was spelled backward. Or misspelled backward in many cases. After that I flirted around with writing. I had a minor fling with journalism, briefly got involved with advertising, and lived with teaching English. But I didn’t really get serious about writing until a few years ago, and then writing rejected my first proposal. Rejected quite a few of my proposals, actually. But I persisted, and now I’m ready to settle down and start having kids. Or maybe writing is. OK, I kind of lost track of the half-assed metaphor I had going there.
What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
Well, I’m constantly processing oxygen into carbon dioxide so that plants can live, and buying perishable goods to keep currency circulating through the economy. It’s exhausting. I also like running, hiking, live music, movies, used books, coffee, and worrying my family. The usual.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
Well, as far as urban fantasy goes, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on by Patricia Briggs, Jim Butcher, and Ilona Andrews, so it’s hard to imagine that they haven’t influenced me. I guess the authors who I’ve heard echoes of when I reread my stuff are Lawrence Block, Carrie Fisher, Ross Thomas, Dorothy Sayers, Robert B. Parker, Nelson DeMille, David Wong, Jeffrey Thomas, Roger Zelazny, and Robert Heinlein. I’m not claiming to write as well as those individuals, it’s just that every now and again I can see parallels or hear similarities in tone. I do an understatement thing that’s very Zelazny-like sometimes, and a sarcastic overstatement thing that’s very DeMille-ish. I have a weakness for wordplay that’s Carrie Fishery? Carrie Fishy? And so on.
That said, my personal favorite writer is Jim Munroe, and Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask is also about a loner who finds himself fascinated by a strong and mysterious blonde. I never planned that; in fact, I just noticed it for the first time. I don’t think the two books are really all that similar, though—I wish they were. There are probably all kinds of authors who I imitate without even being aware that I’m doing it, and authors I wish I wrote like, and authors that I would blatantly rip off if I could.
On the visual-media side of things, I love Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and those shows obviously had a big impact on me. Eric Kripke, Ben Edlund, and Joss Whedon rule. I would say that Grimm obviously influenced me, but I had already started sending my complete manuscript out months before its premise was announced.
What inspired you to write CHARMING?
My grandmother. She was an English teacher, and I don’t think she ever threw away a book that she liked. She had this incredible house full of books about fables and myths and folktales. I’m not just talking about the Brothers Grimm collections, although she had those. I’m talking the Jack tales, the Petit Jean stories, Richard Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights, Kipling’s Jungle Bookstories, Hans Christian Andersen, mythology collections like those of Thomas Bullfinch and Edith Hamilton, Chinese fables about the Eight Immortals, and so on. All of these beat-to-hell books with ripped or missing covers, but inside they smelled great and had gorgeous illustrations.
Which character is your favorite and why?
John’s voice is in my comfort zone, but the character who was the most fun to write was Molly. That might be because she’s an amalgam of two real people who I’m very fond of.
Why did you decide to mix John with a werewolf versus other various supernatural beings?
I actually wanted to make John an ordinary person, at least genetically. Urban fantasy isn’t really a comedy routine, but I think normal protagonists can function like straight men, providing a backdrop and basis for comparison against the wild and crazy creatures that authors throw their way. Sometimes this really is done to comedic effect, as with Thorne Smith, and sometimes it is done to induce near-mindless terror as in the works of H. P. Lovecraft (or Caitlín Kiernan). Sometimes the normal protagonist kind of gives the reader someone to identify with, provides a foundation and a window simultaneously. I think that’s why Stephen King is so wonderful—he mixes the mundane and the otherworldly in a way that bypasses your defenses and goes straight to your gut.
But the world in my novel is in a state of schism: it’s actually two worlds that have been unnaturally divided and are coexisting side by side in an uneasy state of truce. It’s kind of like the world in China Miéville’s amazing book The City and the City, although it’s also nothing like it. I reluctantly decided that I needed a character who was going to have a foot in both worlds while ultimately belonging to neither because I have plans. Twisted, evil, mad-scientist-type plans. Whether those plans will come to fruition, I honestly don’t know. It still amazes me how different the book I plotted out and the book I finished turned out to be from each other. It’s kind of like that saying “Man plans and God laughs.” I think authors plot and novels wind up going wherever they want.
I chose to make John a werewolf because werewolves are one of the weakest monsters individually, and also one of the most familiar. I love exotic and little-known supernatural creatures: almost all of my short stories feature them, and I have loved writing those short stories. But if I couldn’t have an ordinary human protagonist for my novel, I at least wanted to make his abilities familiar so that I could use him as a starting point to explore this world I want to have fun with. I made my first antagonist a vampire for similar reasons.
Where did the idea for the Pax Arcana come from?
Basically it was an intellectual exercise. I sat down and tried to come up with a way that the supernatural could actually exist. I came up with the following: (1) Some sort of mass compulsion/illusion/hypnosis. (2) Some sort of organized conspiracy or system in place to handle “incidents.” (3) Some vague physics principle in action that would make technology unable to function or record the supernatural. (4) Some sort of mental conditioning or fail-safe that would make it impossible for people in the know to turn traitor or go public or just babble insanely in the middle of a breakdown.
That said, the idea of worlds within the world concealed by mass illusions and mind control are nothing new. My first memory of reading about something like that was the illusion that protected the Land of Oz from mundane eyes in L. Frank Baum’s books, but there are all sorts of fairy tales where people are suddenly able to see through the illusions concealing reality. More recently, there’s “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, Singer of Souls by Adam Stemple, Dean R. Koontz’s Odd Thomas books, the false “Gods” in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom stories, the Spiderwick Chronicles, the Matrix movies, and so on.
What was the most difficult part about building the world of CHARMING?
Trimming it down. I had something like ten interludes full of background information. I wrote speculations about the Nephilim in Genesis, theories about the Fae, the hidden history of the fourteenth century, background information on the Knights Templar, different theories of how magic works, and so on. I came up with what I think is a logical explanation on why staking vampires destroys them, why werewolves were created, and so on. And I yanked all of that and more because I thought it was ultimately getting in the way of the story. It hurt. It still hurts.
What is next for John and Sig?
Well, John finds out that Sig is centuries old and really the one who ordered the werewolves to kill his parents. Sig sleeps with John, but it turns out to be his evil twin brother that nobody knew about. John loses control the next full moon and eats Molly. Sig and John meet with all of this stuff going on and try to kill each other but instead wind up beginning a violent sexual relationship marked by self-loathing and dominance games. This lasts until Sig catches some unknown Valkyrie disease that makes her really long-winded and eloquent on her deathbed, and John tearfully vows to get a sex change and take her name in order to make sure that no one forgets her. Then John wakes up at the end of my next novel and there’s a sexy vampire in the shower and he realizes that the first two books were all a dream. Or were they?
Actually, the premise of the next book goes something like this: John needs to somehow come to terms with the Knights Templar if he and Sig are ever going to sort things out. The Knights Templar are having problems with a huge werewolf clan in the Midwest that is absorbing smaller werewolf packs, kind of the way Genghis Khan absorbed smaller Mongol tribes into a larger clan and organized these supposedly untamable groups into an army. It looks like the Knights Templar are about to be pulled into another large-scale open conflict like the one they got into with vampires, and the organization is still recovering from that one. They can’t get any reliable inside intelligence on what’s going on with this werewolf clan because werewolves can sniff out non-werewolves and technology doesn’t work around places where magic is concentrated. And here’s John Charming, who wants to reach some kind of truce. Those are the elements I’m working with.