J W Davis Interview
James Davis is an honors graduate of History and a retired social studies instructor. His series, the Bow Maiden Chronicles, draws upon his experience growing up in a working-class environment and his studies in ancient history, creating an exciting mix of tough resilient characters in a fascinating yet familiar landscape. After retiring from teaching, he moved to the Pacific Northwest with his wife and their dog Luna where they spend most of their free time in the temperate rain forests and rugged beaches.
An interview with science fiction & fantasy author J W Davis
About (Who, why, when, where, what)
Tell us something about your books, including your genre and your characters and/or themes.
I’m finishing a fantasy trilogy drawing on my historian background as a foundation for my world building.
Where are you based?
Currently living in the Pacific Northwest, US.
Latest releases and upcoming titles?
My first book was Guardians of the Grove, and I just finished my second novel, Daughter of the Forest. I am currently working on the third, but I won’t have a title until I have finished or mostly finished.
What are you currently working on?
The third book of my trilogy.
What inspires you to write?
Hearing or watching people get excited about reading my books. I know that may come off a little scripted, but it is honest. I originally started writing merely to do something constructive and creative with my time. One of those bucket list items. However, when I started seeing that readers developed emotional attachments to my characters, it was both a surprise and inspiring.
When and why did you get into writing fantasy?
I’ve always loved fantasy as a genre, but I didn’t consider writing until I became ill and had to give up teaching. I needed something that was challenging and interesting that would appeal to my creative nature but not too taxing physically. It seemed like the perfect activity and has been an amazing journey so far.
Who are your favourite fantasy writers/ fantasy authors?
Hmm, that is tough to answer because I love different writers for different reasons. My first read was The Hobbit at a young age, so Tolkien is certainly in there. Terry Brooks was one of my early influences along with Anne McCaffrey and her Dragon Riders of Pern series. Tad Williams is perhaps my overall favorite but there are so many I enjoy, we are talking small margins here.
What is your favourite fantasy series and why?
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series. For me, it was one of those rare series that I read multiple times. Not as many as LOTR, but more than most. The character arcs were so engaging to me, that I can remember having visceral reactions to some of the character’s behavior. It really drew me in and I power-read the entire series the first time over a few days with little sleep. Some of my friends who have read it found it “too descriptive,” but I enjoyed that aspect.
What are your favourite fantasy genres?
There isn’t a fantasy genre I dislike, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be epic. I also enjoy sci-fi a great deal, but not a fan of horror and get a little peeved when it gets lumped into fantasy. I don’t mind good horror, just not the slash and gore variety. It’s funny because my main objection is that I find it absurd, but I am fine with magicians and dragons.
Who are some of your all-time favourite fantasy characters? And why do you think they became your favourites?
Wil, from Elfstones of Shannara, Simon, from Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, and Mat from Wheel of Time. I’m a sucker for reluctant heroes as long as they don’t whine all the time. My biggest peeve with any character is to write them constantly whining. This is especially true of female characters which suffer from this sort of characterization far too often.
Do you follow any fantasy entertainment outside of books? (Video Games, Boardgames, Comics etc)
I dabbled in comics, but I have played numerous fantasy games over the years including MMOs. I was even known to do some D&D back in the day.
What’s going on in the next few months? Anything on the Horizon?
Other than working on the final book of my trilogy, I plan on getting out into the sunlight more. This pandemic has been a bit suffocating and I need to spend some time in the backcountry.
What kind of books did you read that contributed to your upbringing, as far as fantasy and science-fiction?
I was raised in a very conservative working-class family, so my exposure to fantasy and sci-fi was very limited. It wasn’t until my mid to late teens that I was able to explore the world of fantasy literature. When I did begin to read fantasy and sci-fi, it was all I read. As far as being an influence, I would have to say, the sarcasm in Douglas Adam’s work was influential on me as a source of humor, and the irreverence of Robert Heinlein. Stranger in a Strange Land was mind blowing to me especially since it was so contrary to my upbringing.
Was your upbringing pretty geeky?
Not at all. I was a late-blooming geek.
Why should anyone read your book?
When I decided to write, one of the things I told myself was to not do anything overly fanciful. I think sometimes authors get so wrapped up into writing something unusual, that they stumble over the basics like developing solid characters. I think where my stories and my world will stand out from other authors is my use of ancient history/cultures as a model. I drew from Stone Age and Bronze Age cultures to build some of the foundations of my world and then mixed in some fantasy elements. It will be familiar, but different enough to stand out. I am also confident my characters won’t disappoint.
The writing process (Inspiration, discipline, planning, software, editing)
Do you have a process, do you plan or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I start with world building. I developed a creation myth, various religious beliefs, then cultures and geography. I feel all cultures are built on creation myths and religious ideology. Once that was all ironed out, I gave some thought to politics and warfare before moving onto creating characters. I spent an unusual amount of time developing names because I wanted them to match the personality I had on paper for each character. This process took as much time as writing the first novel. But, as far as the story went, I developed an overall arc then let my characters drive the story. I would introduce conflict then ask myself how that character would respond, and then resolve that conflict accordingly. So, I planned for the foundation and created a framework, but flew by the seat of my pants for most of the rest.
How has your writing process changed since you first started writing?
It hasn’t changed much except I probably have more interruptions.
How long does it normally take you to write a fantasy novel, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?
That is difficult for me to measure, but when I am feeling well, I can write up to 4-5 thousand words a day, but I take my time with proofing. For my first book, I would write a chapter and send it out to my beta readers, get input, edit, and move to the next chapter. That was a little cumbersome, so the second book I sent to my readers whole, with a few exceptions. I proof both as I go and the final book. There has never been a time that I didn’t find some issue that needed resolving, so I do my best to be diligent in this process. I always use an editor and proofreader and then make final edits, and proof for typos in those edits. I spend a lot of time in the editing process to get the best possible book to my readers. If everything goes well, this takes me about a year, but realistically, 18 to 20 months per book which run around 140k words.
What is your favourite part of the writing process?
I love developing characters more than plot, but my favorite aspect in all of this is getting feedback from beta readers. I am moved by their passion for the story. I have this Australian reader who constantly blows my mind on how well he knows the characters and the questions he asks. I have also had readers get really angry when a beloved character was harmed. These types of reactions let me know I am doing something right and creating characters that they find relevant and moving. Having that interaction with readers in real time is by far my favorite aspect of being a writer.
Have your previous vocations influenced your writing?
I was educated as a historian and it has heavily influenced my writing. For instance, one of the things often discussed in my studies was cave art. A prevailing belief at the time was that this was some sort of sympathetic magic for hunting success. That never made sense to me for numerous reasons. I put a scene in my book where my main character is discussing cave art and how it represents hunts that went bad and it was there to placate the spirit of that animal that did not die well. We know that many cultures had a reverence for hunted animals and even sacrifices, so I added that aspect but inserted my perspective. I do this with the matriarchal cultures in my book and even tough topics like slave trade which can be difficult to write. But, I don’t avoid difficult topics because humans are human, and there is a lot of ugliness there along with the good.
Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do you make this work?
I do use beta readers for proofing and general feedback.
As far as writing goes, what do you use? Software, Apps, Hardware etc?
MS Word is all I have used or needed. I am not opposed to using more tools, just haven’t seen a need. I have been considering poking around some of these apps that help organize characters and world building elements, but haven’t made time for that yet. I also use Photoshop for some cover work I have done.
Do you do a lot of research for each book? If so, how do you conduct your research?
A little for world building. I did some internet searches for period names and some translation tools to create names for creatures, things of this nature.
How do you overcome blank writing spells?
I have thankfully not had a problem with this. I have had to put the brakes on because I wasn’t sure I liked where the plot was going. I have also halted writing to develop more world elements that I thought were lacking, but usually I just roll with the story. Sometimes, if I am not feeling particularly creative, I spend that time proofing.
A number of fantasy/sci-fi authors have been known to use art, music, exercise, alcohol and even drugs as a way to find inspiration to enter the zone! Do you use any tools to enter into your creative headspace?
Nothing drug related. I find alcohol and the like to be prohibiting. I will however use music as I write. I will sometimes put something heavy on if I am doing a battle scene, for instance. I try to use music that reflects the emotions of the scene or chapter. I had this chapter that was in a land somewhat reminiscent of Mongolia and would listen to traditional throat singing during some of that writing. I have also used meditation music at times for noise canceling purposes. It just depends on what frame of mind I want but the majority of the time I prefer quiet.
Do you prefer to write in silence and or have some sort of sound in the background?
For creative activities, I always prefer silence, but I am fine with music that enhances my mood as well.
Publishing (formatting, cover design, formats, marketing)
Describe the road you took to publishing your first novel? And how that has changed.
I had read an article right after I stopped teaching talking about the new rise of indy publishing. It was inspirational and it was the road I took. Nothing has changed.
Will your next book be traditional or indie published?
I am not opposed to either, but since I loathe the idea of sending highly prescripted letters to search for an agent, I suspect I’ll be sticking with the independent model.
Would you recommend self-publishing to aspiring authors, or would you suggest a more traditional path?
I think everyone’s journey has to be their own and there are very different obstacles going down either path. I would recommend doing the research and choose the method best suited for their perspective.
What sort of input do you give to formatting, cover design, marketing?
If I had the money, I would hire out all my marketing. I absolutely hate it. I am not comfortable selling shoes to someone looking to buy shoes. I just have no knack for it. I am also horrible discussing myself to strangers. It makes me feel arrogant, so marketing is definitely my Achilles heel. I am heavily involved in making my covers though, to the point that I did most of the work on my latest one. To me it can’t be some random wow factor, but must connect the reader to the story in a meaningful manner.
Advice on making an impact in today busy Sci-Fi and Fantasy markets.
I believe a person should write to please themselves first. Write the kind of story you would love to read. Also, and perhaps more important if making a living is in the mix, find a good editor and have the humility to listen to criticism. It doesn’t matter how great your story may be if the mechanics of writing are sub-standard. Readers will quickly shy away from bad writing.
Most prized fantasy book in your collection?
My wife purchased some first edition copies of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series for me.
Do you read digital, paperback or hardback or do you listen to audiobooks?
Digital for news, paperback for pleasure, audiobooks for educational, and hardbacks for my library.
What are some difficulties you’ve experienced in your writing career; how do you handle book critiques/criticism?
I use to attend a lot of poetry groups during college, so I am rather thick skinned when it comes to criticism. I actually appreciate that honesty a great deal even when I disagree with it. As far as challenges go, the biggest has been health restraints. I have a neuro-immune illness that can wreak havoc on me and I spent a bit of time overcoming cancer between book one and book two. But I am well and plan to have this final book of my trilogy out this year.
What are the best experiences in your writing career?
Seeing someone cry reading my book. I know that sounds a bit odd, but knowing I could touch someone in that way was a moving moment for me. Anytime I hear someone speak passionately about the characters I created; I am very touched. Those moments I find both meaningful and inspirational. It makes me want to be a better writer.
What are some encouraging words you’d give to another author/writer?
If you don’t jump in and try, you’ll never know what you are capable of doing. If you decide to take the plunge, listen. If you can’t listen to criticism, then it is unlikely you will grow. If you can’t grow, you will fall short of your goals. Inspiration is only half of the battle. The hard work comes in the editing and letting go of those moments you created that don’t add to the story.
Book 1 of the Bow Maiden Chronicles:
Book 2 of the Bow Maiden Chronicles: