I asked D.L. some questions, so let's get down to business and see what he had to say!
I’m so happy you enjoyed Soledad! I’ve always been drawn to near-future “what if” stories in books and movies, tales that take place in a future we can see coming just around the corner if we don’t get our collective act together. I love the Mad Max movies (Road Warrior and Fury Road, the two good ones) and they have a huge influence in my books’ vehicular action sequences. Why am I so attracted to bleak futures? When you find out, let me know. The series I’m just starting is cyberpunk, so it looks like I won’t be leaving the dark side of speculative fiction anytime soon.
2. You currently have 3 novels in the Dark Republic series: Soledad, Indigo, and El Flaco. Are there plans for more, or are you heading on to something else? What’s next for the great D.L.?
I *might* do a prequel for the Dark Republic trilogy, but that’s kind of on the back burner at the moment. With 3 novels and a some shorter works set in the Dark Republic (a future Texas where secession has gone terribly wrong), I’ve basically spent the last three years or so writing stories in the same world. While I love those tales with all my heart, it’s definitely time to shake things up and move on to something new.
I’m VERY excited about the cyberpunk series I’ve just started writing. Cyberpunk is a genre I’ve loved since I was a kid, and I’ve always wanted to write something in that kind of gritty, tech-saturated world. Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies of all time (some say B.R. isn’t cyberpunk, but they’re wrong!) and the Sprawl trilogy by William Gibson is one of the few series I’ve re-read many times.
3. What is something that you learned about yourself when writing your novels?
The biggest barriers to writing a novel are the ones you create yourself. I think a lot of aspiring writers consider completing a novel such a formidable task that they psyche themselves out of it. I mean, how in the hell am I going to write 80,000 words? How can I keep it all coherent and engaging? How can I write a story as good as [insert any author you’re awed by here]? You beat yourself up because you want perfection, you want your story to be awesome, and when it doesn’t come out that way in an early draft, it’s easy to beat yourself up and tell yourself you’re not good enough and you have no business doing this.
So, giving yourself permission to suck really helps. Sounds silly, I know, but writing is a skill that—like any other skill—improves only with regular practice. There’s no magic to it, no secret sauce. You become a better, more competent writer the more you practice your craft. And what that means early in your career is that your work will suck relative to the top authors in your particular genre. Sad but true. Accept it now and you’re ready for the next step. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, by the way. Let yourself suck, learn from your mistakes, and do it better the next time. Rinse and repeat. I wrote nothing but short fiction for years, working on my craft until I felt confident my skills were honed enough to take the novel-length plunge. Look at the very early works of any author you really admire, and you can see how their particular genius was evident, but not nearly as good as it became later in their careers when they really hit their stride, artistically speaking. Kurt Vonnegut is a great example of this. His early stuff (Player Piano, Sirens of Titan) is definitely, unmistakably Vonnegut, but it doesn’t have the power and resonance of his later work (Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions).
4. I’m a bit of a hard-ass and don’t get choked up easily. However, due to its touching ending, Soledad has the distinction of being only the 2nd book to make me teary-eyed. It was a book that stayed with me for quite a while after I finished and stirred up many emotions. What do you hope your readers get out of your work? Is there anything in particular that you hope they take away?
Have I ever told you that you’re my favorite reader? Seriously, what a compliment! I remember when you first told me that, I was so touched! It’s the kind of feedback you live for.
At the most superficial level, like every other author I want readers to enjoy my books, to connect with the characters, and to be moved by the stories. You dream about readers having that feeling of not wanting to end the book they love it so much. That “oh crap, do I really only have 30 pages left?” feeling we’ve all had with really great books. And if I can tear you up in the process, all the better!!! 😉
5. What was your most difficult scene to write? Why?
The violent death of a character I really liked. I remember being very sad writing the (fairly graphic and bloody) death scene, but I knew if it affected me so strongly, it would probably resonate with readers as well. It’s the scene, by the way, that readers have most commented on when I meet them in person.
6. Something I’ll often do when writing, particularly in the afternoons, is sip on a gin (or whiskey…whiskey works too!) Do you ever find yourself doing something similar, or is writing a strictly non-alcoholic activity for you?
Ah, the whole “write drunk / edit sober” maxim from Papa Hemingway, eh? I’m a beer and wine guy myself, but since I write early in the morning when the house is quiet and kids are still asleep, coffee is the drug of choice for my writing sessions.
7. Do you try to be more original in your writing, or do you aim to deliver readers what they want?
A bit of both. I followed a 3-act structure in each of the 3 Dark Republic novels, which keeps things moving along and meets some implicit expectations (about pacing, tension, and character arcs) that most readers of English fiction have. I also tried to keep chapters very tight, at about 3,000 words in length, writing them like self-contained stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and finishing each chapter with some sort of little hook or cliffhanger to keep reader momentum going forward. This is something successful commercial writers tend to be really good at, and Hugh Howey did this incredibly well in Wool. So in terms of structure, yes, I tried to make the actual “nuts and bolts” of the story as widely accessible as possible.
Now, that said, I did some other things that weren’t very conventional at all. First, my main character in book one, the titular Soledad, is a very flawed, nearly broken character. She’d almost qualify as an anti-hero. You don’t see many female protagonist portrayed this way in dystopian / post-apocalyptic novels. Katniss in Hunger Games is the archetype, I suppose, strong and defiant and indefatigable. You’ll never find a character like that in my books. I like deeply flawed characters, characters whose moral compass may be a bit broken, who do bad things, even horrible things, over the course of their journey. And no clear-cut good guys and bad guys. Screw that. That’s not reality. Fictional characters should be like real human beings, a hot mess of contradictions and conflicting influences. A few readers have told me they didn’t like the character Soledad at first, but then they grew to sympathize with her plight. And that’s exactly the kind of reaction I’d hoped for.
The follow-up to Soledad, Indigo, also bucked some reader expectations by having a new point of view character who wasn’t even in the first book. It’s kind of a standard thing in trilogies or longer series to have the same viewpoint character throughout all the books. I didn’t go this route. And it’s not that I intentionally wanted to cut against the conventional grain, but there was a parallel story I wanted to tell where Soledad was only at the periphery. So in book 2 Soledad appears briefly, and for the most part it’s the story of Indigo the trader and Prayer Donovan, a religious soldier of legendary renown. In book 3, the characters from the first two books join forces, and Soledad is again at the center of the story, along with the rebel leader “El Flaco” Guzmán.
8. Tell me something that you would change about one of your books.
I used to second-guess my writing choices a lot. A LOT! It’s still difficult for me to go back and read my own work, because I’m my own worst critic. I’ll second-guess vocabulary, sentence structure, dialogue, scene pacing. You name it, and I’ve tortured myself over it. I’m getting better at that kind of thing, though, so I’m going to answer this trap question by saying no, I wouldn’t change a thing. 😊
Well, maybe I’d change ONE thing. It’s small and trite, I know, but I had a glaring gun error in Soledad. Apparently, Glocks don’t have safeties, and I referred to this particular kind of gun as having one. 100% wrong. One reviewer tore me to pieces over this, and my more gun-savvy readers have mentioned it to me more than a couple times. So, yeah, I’d totally change that.
9. What is your dream literary goal?
I’d like to write a novel that has wide popular appeal AND a solid literary point of view. This kind of thing doesn’t happen often in the SF and Fantasy genres. Commercially successful novels generally follow a formulaic dramatic structure and a kind of standardized, vanilla prose aimed at the average reader. Conversely, novels with brilliant literary technique often have a hard time finding popular acceptance. Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star has some incredibly inventive language, which I adored but I think many readers had difficulty with.
There are a few exceptions to this, where a novel with a strong, unconventional literary technique can also be a best seller. Books like Cloud Atlas and The Handmaid’s Tale and Neuromancer. Each has a powerful, unique—and non-commercial—style of prose and/or storytelling, but they also have such compelling stories that they’re accessible to a wide audience. That kind of success, both in commercial and artistic terms, is the ultimate goal to shoot for.
10. As a writer, what is your spirit animal?
I’d like to say something cool like a tiger or cobra, but if I’m going to be truthful about it, I’d have to say the beaver. You have to admire their persistence, making these huge structures that block entire waterways, twig by twig, branch by branch, over a period of months. That’s exactly how novel-writing is, for me at least. You grind away, most every day, trying to carve out a good sentence, a good paragraph, a good sequence, a good chapter. And if you stick with it without getting distracted, little by little, you create something large and complex and, hopefully, beautiful.
Or maybe a cobra…