I am pleased to present my first author interview. Django Wexler is the author of the Shadow Campaigns, a “gunpowder fantasy” series where clashing armies echo the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while magic-users wage a covert war in the shadows. After reading the first book, The Thousand Names, I was hooked. His other works include The Forbidden Library, a young adult series.
Read on for more:
Hello, and welcome to the site!
I’d like to begin by asking about your journey as a writer. You got started via an interest in table-top RPGs, then wrote a number of novels before bursting onto the scene with The Thousand Names in 2013. How has your writing developed, during and since?
The state of my writing is a very hard thing for me to track from the inside, as it were. The first thing to realize is that I wrote a lot of stuff that never has (or will be) published, so by the time Memories of Empire, my first small-press book, came out, I’d had a lot of practice with trunk novels or fan-fiction. The Thousand Names was another three or four novels later, and close to five years, so it’s quite a jump!
One thing I’ve definitely observed is I’ve lost my taste for grand, over-complicated plots. I had a real yearning all through my gaming years to do something enormously epic in scope, and at one point I actually tried writing it — it was going to be nineteen books long, with huge continental maps and oceans of backstory, and one of those timelines that starts with “0: The Gods Create The World”. Fortunately I was dissuaded after only one novel from going on with it, because it would have been impossible to sell, but the further I come the less I really want to do something like that. I have too many different ideas to spend twenty years on one of them.
However! Nothing is every truly wasted. The whole Shadow Campaigns series actually came from one minor thread that was supposed to be woven into this mega-project, and another thing that I’m working on came from another.
How would you describe your current books? And what can you tell us about the other project that you’re working on?
The Shadow Campaigns is a fantasy loosely based on the Napoleonic Wars. It originally began as a project to do a fantasy retelling of the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, inspired by S.M. Stirling and David Drake’s The General series, which is the story of Belisarius. After I started writing it, though, it changed a lot, so it’s now only very vaguely a historical analogue. I pitched it as “A Song of Ice and Fire with guns” — a military/political fantasy set in the age of muskets and cavalry charges.
As for the next project, I have to remain fairly close-mouthed about it. There are quite a few on the horizon, though! More when I’m allowed to say.
Your influences range from European history to wargaming to anime, and you’ve written epic, young adult, and urban fantasy. How do these interact? Do you experience a lot of cross-pollination?
Definitely a lot of cross-pollination. The Shadow Campaigns originated more or less directly in my desire to use my wargaming and historical knowledge in fiction, and to do an epic fantasy where the battle scenes didn’t make me cringe at the unrealism. As it got going, though, other elements crept in, and most of the magic system owes its origins to anime influence, along with characters like Sothe.
On the kids’ side, The Forbidden Library got its start from me thinking about the role of mentors in Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, but the magic system owes a lot to Card Captor Sakura or Pokemon!
That’s pretty cool – could you tell us more about your take on mentors?
I think of it as “the sketchy Dumbledore scenario”. In the Harry Potter books, Dumbledore always seemed a little suspicious to me — he’s constantly sending young children to do incredibly dangerous tasks and not giving them complete information beforehand, or intervening to help them before the last minute. We all know he’s a good guy, so we believe him when he says that he’s doing it all for Harry’s own good, but it’s still a little … odd.
What I wanted to write about is what that would look like if you didn’t know the mentor was actually a good guy. So he tells you, “Oh, you’re the chosen one! Now go fight those guys over there, they’re the bad guys. Just trust me on this one.” And you then have to think, does this guy really have my best interests at heart? Or is he just using me for his own ends? This is very much the problem Alice in The Forbidden Library has to deal with, in regards to several people who give her helpful advice.
What is your take on speculative fiction in gaming? While there are exceptions, I’ve always felt that video games tend to stick with familiar settings – high fantasy, cyberpunk, and galactic space opera – and use them as a backdrop to blow stuff up. What do you think games do best, and where could they improve?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask this, because my tastes in video games have changed over the years. I used to be exactly the person advocating pushing more story into gaming, and I’d devour long jRPGs and other story-heavy games. At some point, though (I think because I have less gaming time) I started preferring games that were just games, stripped down to the gameplay, because I was happy to get my stories from books.
There are exceptions, of course. I’ve played and loved Bioware’s RPGs, and a game like Borderlands 2 stands as an example of the power of combining story and character with gameplay. While I respect the emerging genre of gameplay-light, story-heavy games, what I think of as the Gone Home model, it doesn’t often appeal to me.
For me, the inherent advantage of gaming as a medium is its ability to give you many streams of information at once — gameplay interactions, voices, characters and background, etc. It works best when you don’t stop everything dead to do cutscenes, or give people a lot to read, but do characterization simultaneous with the gameplay. This is what Borderlands is so good at. It’s also a great strength of some jRPGs — because of the length, you feel like you’ve been fighting alongside these characters in a way that’s hard to replicate in a book or movie.
But, as I said, right now I’m playing a lot of wargames (often using tabletop-to-PC simulators like Vassal) and story-less games like Civilization, so I may not be in the best position to opine!
Out of curiosity, which games do you consider most reminiscent of your books? I imagine wargames would work well for the military aspect of the Shadow Campaigns; something like Dishonoured for the occult aspects; and a JRPG for The Forbidden Library…
For The Shadow Campaigns, definitely wargames. Someone once asked if I would be making a Shadow Campaigns game, and I said you actually don’t need to make one — the world design is close enough to history that you could write scenarios for an existing system, like Napoleon’s Battles, and drop it in with almost no modification. Not coincidentally, a lot of the inspiration for the book comes out of wargames!
For The Forbidden Library, we actually thought about doing a tabletop RPG based in that world. The second book, The Mad Apprentice, is almost exactly a tabletop RPG setting — a group of young apprentices, each with varying powers, is sent out on a mission into hostile territory. You could probably work it up in a generic system like HERO, too.
Can you tell us anything about the tabletop RPG that could have been? Who else was involved?
A friend of mine from college was doing the actual design, he’s something of an expert in homebrewed rules systems. Unfortunately, we didn’t really have time to get it off the ground — noodling about game design is fun, but the real thing takes massive amounts of playtesting, tweaking, and other work! But the basic idea would be that you’d build your characters powers out of the creatures they’d mastered, just like the apprentices do in the book, and you’d be able to summon the monsters, use their powers, or transform into them.
The next Shadow Campaigns book, The Guns of Empire, is due out in August. What should we expect?
I’m really happy with this one, and excited to share it with everybody. It’s pretty heavily on the military side of the military/politics boundary I try to walk with the series. At the same time, there’s a lot of magical action, too! And there’s a few secrets that get revealed in the run up to the grand finale.
Do you have any final message for the readers?
Just “thanks for reading”! I’ve just returned from a con, and it’s really wonderful to meet people and hear what they thought of the books. It makes the job a lot more worthwhile!
Thank you for your time!