At an event like World Con, one has the opportunity to meet authors at all levels of their craft and career, as I have said in previous interview posts. I introduced myself to David B. Coe after sitting in on one of that week’s many panels and listening to him and the other panelists discuss various aspects of the writing business. David is a self-described midlist author, which isn’t exactly glamorous, but it’s a darn sight further along the career path than legions of other would-be writers. It basically means that he’s a real live working fiction writer, not a part-timer clinging to the security blanket of a day job, someone who’s taken that critical leap of faith and now makes a living at this crazy kind of career. While he’s not (yet) a luminary of the fiction world, he’s a solid, established pro nevertheless. All that, and he gives good panel discussion.
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
DC: Hmmm. The arc of my career. I’d like to think that it’s a little early for that right now, because the arc is still rising, and I’m a long, long way from being done. I came to writing as a refugee from academia. I grew up wanting to write novels, but got sidetracked in my twenties and wound up getting a Ph.D. in U.S. history before going back to fiction. I’ve been incredibly fortunate throughout my career, proving that sometimes luck is more important that talent. I had a friend who agreed to serve as my agent early in my career, and he really helped get me started. We managed to sell my first novel on five chapters and an outline. As I say, I was lucky. The first series did well — decent sales, good reviews, the Crawford Award for best new writer — and I then turned to Winds of the Forelands, which wound up being five books long. In many ways I view Winds of the Forelands as my opus to date. I think I’ll feel similarly about Blood of the Southlands when it’s finished, but for now, the Forelands books are the works of which I’m most proud.
TH: A phenomenon that I’m seeing through doing these interviews is that the majority of professionals to whom I have spoken have a drive or an urge to write stories that goes back to childhood, but they often put it aside and come back to it later in life, perhaps around or after age 30. This appears to apply to you as well. Why do you think that is?
DC: I think part of the reason for this is that writing is a pretty tough business. I went to college intending to major in creative writing, and got away from that in part because my parents encouraged me to try something a bit safer from a career standpoint. In order to write professionally you have to really, really love it. You have to have stories burning a hole in your chest; you have to have characters clamoring for your attention, begging to have their stories told. Because making a living this way is hard. The pay isn’t very good. Payment comes in sporadically. The business end of the job takes up a significant amount of time and effort. And the actually writing of a book is hard work. At times it’s frustrating. So I think that people come to it later in life because deciding to do this for a living is not a choice we can make lightly or without the financial wherewithal to make the decision with some security.
TH: What is The Story of David? Is it a novel? A short story? An epic poem? A limerick?
DC: I think right now the story of David is a romantic comedy. All in all my life is pretty good. I’m married to a brilliant, generous, funny, beautiful woman who I adore. We have two daughters who are [knocks on wood] healthy and happy and very much like their mother. I have a career that I love. There have been some difficult times and there are some things I’d change, but overall, I’m very happy with where my life is right now.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
DC: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was old enough to read and write. I wrote my first “books” when I was six or seven years old and all through my early school years the thing I liked to do best was write stories. As I grew older, I realized that I was thinking like a writer, by which I mean that for as long as I can remember, I have looked for ways to write about the things I experience. If I saw a beautiful sunset or found myself in an awkward social situation, I would experience it on one level, but I would also write about it in my mind, looking for the words to describe what I was seeing or feeling. I still do this today. But I’ve been doing it for so long that I take it for granted now.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never a see the light of day. I’m talking about stuff that perhaps helped you learn and develop your craft, like the five novels the author had to write before he could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
DC: I have lots of old fiction sitting in boxes or folders at home. Much of it is stuff I wrote in high school and college that must never be allowed to see the light of day. I also have some of those older stories from elementary school days that are pretty funny to look at now. And I have journals from twenty and thirty years ago that are filled with prose and poetry as well as simple explorations of experiences from that time of my life. Again, I wouldn’t want anyone to see these, but I have looked back at them now and again, and some of the writing still reads pretty well.
As for rejected novels and stories, I’m fortunate to have few of those. I have one recent novel that I’m still trying to sell (and I’m confident that I will at some point) and a few stories that I’ve never tried to sell. But CHILDREN OF AMARID, the first book of my LonTobyn series, was the first novel I wrote, and most of the stories I’ve submitted have sold eventually. Did I mention that I’ve been very lucky…?
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
DC: Hmmmm. Let’s see. I want to write a bestseller or six. I want a World Fantasy Award or six. I’d like to win a Hugo or a Nebula or both. Speaking more realistically, I’m currently doing fine as a midlist author, but I would like to see my career take that next step forward. I want to be a bigger name in the field and would like to see my work recognized a bit more. I’m pretty happy in what I do, but yes, I’d still like more.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
DC: Inspiration works for me on a couple of levels. On the one hand, my books and short fiction are largely character driven. I write about people; sometimes I put them in extraordinary circumstances, but what makes my stories work is the fact that my characters are ordinary enough that my readers can relate to them, understand them, sympathize with them. So I draw a good deal of inspiration from fairly mundane things: friendship, the simple frustrations and successes of ordinary life, family, love, my children, etc.
That said, I also write books about fantastic worlds of my own creation, so I also draw inspiration from places that I’ve visited. My family and I spent a year living in Australia. I’ve traveled in the U.K., in France, and extensively throughout the US and Canada. And I am constantly moved by the natural landscapes and urban centers that I see. The Australian landscape in particular is something that I’ll write about eventually. It sometimes takes me years to allow an experience of that sort to percolate through my creative thinking enough to allow me to write about it. I’m only two years removed from our stay Down Under, so I’m not quite there yet. But someday.
TH: Living and traveling abroad is certainly one of the best ways to cultivate your Muse. What are some notable ways your international experiences have found their way into your fiction?
DC: The series I’m writing now, Blood of the Southlands, is, in part, about a family trying to make a new life for themselves in an alien land. I wrote the majority of the first book in that series, THE SORCERERS’ PLAGUE, during the year we spent in Australia and I believe that it became a way of channeling that experience into my work. The wonder and excitement are there in that book, as is the sense of displacement. I couldn’t have written SORCERERS’ PLAGUE as effectively as I believe I did without having lived that year in Australia.
I also think that every time I go somewhere new, be it abroad or in the States, I am gathering material for my worldbuilding. I see landscapes that inspire me, cityscapes that fire my imagination. Hmmmm. Sounds like I need to write off the expense of all my travel for tax purposes. <g>
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
DC: Hard to say. I love playing with characters. People fascinate me, and being able to get inside the head of a character so that I can bring him or her to life for my readers is something I enjoy immensely. I also love the world-building process at the beginning of a new project. Just being able to allow my imagination to run wild. Great fun. And in a day-to-day sense, I love working at home, being my own boss, having the freedom to write what I want to write. I can’t imagine making a living any other way.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore ?
DC: Every writer wants to find the Secret of Self-Promotion, and if I had something truly magical to offer, I’d have written a book about it already. The fact of the matter is that self-promotion is very difficult to do with any great success. It’s a great big world and one person can only reach so many people and generate so many sales. I have a website, of course, (www.davidbcoe.com) as well as several different blogs, some of them my own and some that I share with other writers. And I’ve found that as I’ve increased my web presence in recent years my sales have improved somewhat. I have a regular contest on my website that draws people to the site and to my work. I go to conventions and do a few signings each year and I occasionally teach at writers’ workshops. All of those things help. But the best way to sell books is to write something good and hope that word of mouth and good reviews will bring in more readers. This is a tough way to earn a living, and to some extent all writers are subject to the vagaries of the market.
TH: Have your reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
DC: Hmmmm. Depends on what you mean by “made it”. There was a time when I wondered if I’d ever sell a book at all, so that first contract was pretty exciting. But almost immediately I realized that what I wanted wasn’t just to sell one book, but rather to be an author — to have a career as a writer. So there came a time after the publication of my second book when in quick succession I learned that a) the hardcover edition of my second book (THE OUTLANDERS) had gone back to press for a second printing, and b) I’d won the Crawford Fantasy Award as the best new writer in fantasy. That was probably when I finally realized that I could relax a bit. I was an established author. I’d be able to sell other books, pretty much for as long as I wanted to. It was an incredible feeling. I’d dreamed of being a writer for so long, and to finally have that dream come true in a substantial way was enormously gratifying.
On the other hand, this is, as I’ve said, a tough business, and an author, even one with nine books in print and another on the way, is only as secure as his most recent sales figures allow him to be. I know several authors who have multiple publications to their credit but now have trouble selling new books to publishers. Some have to write under pseudonyms; others have had to give up altogether. There is no long-term security for a midlist author. The bestsellers? Yeah, they’re probably pretty secure, but for the rest of us it’s always a bit of a struggle.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
DC: Absolutely. I’m an author, but I’m also the sole proprietor of a small business. At least a third (and maybe more) of my time is taken up by promotional activities, travel, business negotiations and considerations, career planning, etc. I also view David B. Coe as an epic fantasy brand. I have a following that I want to maintain. And if I were to turn to other forms of fiction, I’d probably write them under a different name. It would be very nice if I could devote myself entirely to my art and not bother with all the business stuff, but in today’s world it just doesn’t work that way. This IS a business. I ignore that reality at my own peril.
TH: Do you have any plans in the works for non-epic-fantasy stories under a pseudonym?
DC: I have a non-epic-fantasy series that I’m currently trying to sell, and I think that if I ever get it sold I’ll write it under a pseudonym. I’d do this because I’m pretty well known for my epic fantasy work and I don’t want people to confuse my work in one genre with my work in another. I’m not ready to reveal that pseudonym yet, or say too much about the series. But it’s contemporary fantasy with a mystery twist, and the first book is already written. I love the book and I hope to see it in print some time soon.
TH: Looking back on your career fifteen years from now, what do you hope to see?
DC: I hope and expect to be writing still, publishing fantasy novels, contemporary novels, maybe a mainstream literary novel, some short stories, etc. I also hope that I’ll be selling well, maybe I’ll have a couple of more awards under my belt. But mostly I hope that I’ll still love it, that the thrill I feel every time I’m inspired by a new idea will still be there. This is a great job and I want to do it for the rest of my life.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
DC: Well, right now I’m still in the midst of my Blood of the Southlands trilogy. This is a follow-up of sorts to Winds of the Forelands, but a reader could come to the Southlands books without having read any of my Forelands books and they’d be fine. The first book of Blood of the Southlands, THE SORCERERS’ PLAGUE, came out in December 2007, and the second book, THE HORSEMEN’S GAMBIT, will be out in January 2009. I’m currently writing the third and final book, which is as yet untitled. After I’m done with Blood of the Southlands I’ll be moving on to a new project. I’ve already done the world-building for this new series and I have an idea of what it’s going to be about, but I’m not ready to reveal too much. It will be a series of stand-alone books revolving around one character and will combine traditional fantasy with mystery, but that’s all I’m going to say for now, except to add that I’m very excited about it.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
DC: There have been so many. I’ve been to some terrific conventions, had some great signings, and have forged friendships with fellow writers and fans that will last the rest of my life. Specifics? I won the Crawford Award the same week my second child was born, so that was a pretty exciting time. I still remember my very first convention as a professional writer. It was MagicCarpetCon in Chattanooga, Tennessee, near where I live. At one point I went down to the hotel lobby — the wonderful Read House Hotel in downtown Chattanooga — and there in the middle of the lobby was a guy dressed in full Klingon battle gear, complete with makeup and the crinkly stuff on his head and those pointy Klingon boots. And he was pushing a baby stroller. And I thought to myself, “Yes, I’m a fantasy writer…” That was pretty memorable.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
DC: Just to follow up on the question about self-promotion, I would add that some of the blogs I mentioned are worth visiting. My own blog can be found at either http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com or http://davidbcoe.wordpress.com. The content is pretty much the same at both. These are my personal blogs, so I post some stuff about writing, but I also have some political content, stuff about my travels and family, and stuff about some of my other interests. I also share a blog with authors Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, and C.E. Murphy — http://magicalwords.net — which deals almost exclusively with writing issues and might be very helpful to people who are just starting out as writers or who are trying to break into the profession. And I’m a member of www.SFNovelists.com, another writer-oriented site that includes a group blog as well as information on all our members — now nearly 100 strong — and their published work.