Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Elderman Speaks: An Interview with Zachary Jernigan

Today's guest is Zachary Jernigan, author of No Return.

How did you hook up with Nightshade for No Return?
I owe it all to the awesome JM McDermott, a fellow graduate of the Stonecoast Popular Fiction MFA program. Back in early 2012, he knew that I'd submitted to several publishers and agents with some interest but ultimately no offers, and thus recommended me to the supremely talented Ross Lockhart (then an editor with Night Shade). Ross got back to me in short order with an offer.

Of course, whenever Night Shade is brought up, one must address the elephant in the room: their business issues and near collapse. Night Shade had been in economic trouble for a while when I signed my contract with them. I was aware of it, though it was hard to judge how bad the situation may or may not have been.

In other words, I knew signing with them was a risk, but you have to understand that I loved their books. When word struck early last year that they were spiraling the drain and then, only a month after No Return came out, looking at either bankruptcy or sale to a larger publisher, I kind of freaked out regardless of my enthusiasm for the content they put out. Here was my dream, happening, and then taking a dive into the completely unknown.

Fortunately, the sale did go through and things have been fairly smooth since then. Night Shade exists in another form, is taking submissions, and even redesigned No Return for paperback release on July 1st.

What would you say the big inspirations behind No Return are?
Tough question. I suppose I can narrow it down to three things (but ask me later, and it might be three entirely different things):

1. Religion, specifically Mormonism, as I was raised in the church and thereafter left it with a lot of very mixed feelings. The subject of bodily perfection and immortality, specifically, are still things I think about far too much in a "I wish that were true" kind of way. As a result of thinking so much about the rather weird (to me) theology of Mormonism, I end up writing a lot about gods and other immortals, peculiar worlds with even more peculiar magic/tech, and moral quandaries.

2. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which I've dealt with since the age of 11. It may seem like an odd thing to use as an influence, but my illness has moved me in the direction of writing about character -- as in what makes a good person a good person. In No Return, Vedas Tezul struggles to define himself as a worthy individual, to the point where his mistakes haunt him. I identify with this struggle, as my OCD has largely been an obsession with being a good person, of wanting to feel justified in liking myself despite mistakes I've made in life (the kind of mistakes anyone would make, honestly). I think this issue is throughout not only No Return, but everything I write.

3. Comic books, which, oddly, I don't read anymore. The visual style of superhero comics, in particular, had a huge impact in the way I visualize science fiction and fantasy characters. It may sound trite, but I like to have characters that are visually interesting/cool in my stories. When people notice that intersection -- as you did, Dan (and not only the visuals!) -- it makes my day.

Adrash had the taste of Roger Zelazny and Jack Kirby on him. Were they inspirations?
Roger Zelazny, without a doubt. I left him off the list of inspirations above because I saw this question, but he is certainly in the top three. I borrowed (okay, stole) a crapload of stuff from Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness. What can I say? I'm crazy about larger-than-life characters with personality disorders!

Jack Kirby? Again, definitely, but on a less conscious level. Kirby had a way of conveying that same larger-than-life sense as Zelazny did, but on a more iconic level. His work is tattooed on my brain, but it's less of a planned inspiration or theme.

How many books are planned in this series?
Just one more. That's all I'd ever planned on. Most of the reason for this is simple: I hate unfinished things. A second book is about all I could have up in the air and still keep my sanity. I won't rule out the possibility of returning to Jeroun later, however.

Would you say more fantasy writers should dare to step outside the Tolkien-by-Dungeons-and-Dragons box?
Of course! It's getting just a tad old now, isn't it? I mean, fine; I understand people are, on average, more sentimental than I am about those worlds and tropes and themes, but come on -- at a certain point, don't you want something new? To be fair, there are an awful lot of fantasies that aren't in that vein. There are more and more of them each year. But at the same time, we still see so many of the same stock characters and situations, only jazzed up a tiny bit with cosmetic changes. I'd like to see people reaching out beyond this often rather simplistic quest story line (says the guy who wrote about people traveling across a continent on foot to attend a fighting tournament).

I don't want to step on any toes, of course. There are obviously so, so, so many people for whom those familiar locales are a comfort. They love to go to these places again and again. For them, I assume, each iteration is distinct and awesome. For me, though, I get bored. I want to read fantasy that achieves a singular effect. Adding in familiar elements is one thing -- why eschew them altogether? (and could that even be done?) -- but simply playing in an old sandbox seems like an odd choice. The speculative universe is huge. Go for broke with it.

Who would you cast in a No Return movie?
Oh, I'm so bad with actors. I have the worst memory for them. Still, I'll try, knowing that most of these folks are a bit too old...

Ebn - Tilda Swtinton
Pol - Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Vedas - Djimon Hounsou
Churls - Samantha Morton
Adrash - Idris Elba (of course)
Berun - Keith David

Who is your favorite author?
That's a tough one. Very tough. Roger Zelazny is easily my biggest influence, but I don't think I enjoy his books as much as I used to. (Part of the the reason for this is that some people can reread and take more out of fiction, but I tend to dislike rereading.) Still, because of the amount I've taken from his work, I'll go ahead and say him. He was the beginning, for me.

What is your favorite book?
Resurrection Man, by Sean Stewart. It's a frighteningly beautiful book, unlike anything I've read before or since. The end is so good that it pretty much kills me. I'll never write anything that good. It just won't happen. And I'm okay with that, mostly.

What are you reading now?
I just started reading reMIND, by Jason Brubaker. I'd never heard of it, which isn't surprising because I don't really read too many webcomics or graphic novels. When I saw Jason's display at Phoenix Comicon just last weekend, I knew I had to have it. The art is stellar, and thus far the story is great.

Is there a book that made you want to be a writer?
Wow. Never got anything close to that question. You're making me think!
You know what? I have no idea. I think it was a slow accumulation of jealousy toward writers, in general. I wanted to have a book, too! Until the age of thirty, however, I didn't think I could accomplish a novel. It seemed way too difficult. It still feels that way, most days.

Is No Return your first published work?
Novel, yes. Before that, I'd had a few years of fairly steady short story sales.

What's next for Zachary Jernigan?
Oh, so many things! Well, one thing. The sequel (and narrative end) to No Return, Shower of Stones, will be out in the spring of next year. I'm working on it now, and, well, I hope it's good. it's certainly different tonally than the first book. Beyond that, I'll remind folks that the paperback of No Return is out on July 1st!

Any advice for aspiring writers?
Yep. Read more critically and write less often. That may be counter-intuitive to some, but the simple fact (in my opinion, of course) is that most writers begin too early, trying to do too many things, long before they've developed a real ear for language. That helps cement bad habits and can cloud you to all the failing you're doing. Acquire some taste and a distinct aesthetic. Be discerning and a bit of a dickhead about literature.

Basically, go ahead and judge what you read, and try to do it better when you've really got something to say.


  1. Great interview. I always think back to Stephen King saying if you don't have time to read a lot you don't have time to write, or something like that. I enjoy that advice because I love to read a lot, but sometimes wonder when I'm reading if I should be working on an outline or something. It is hard to u derstand how much I'm gaining with each book I read, but during the process I am definitely learning. I learned a lot about character arc building slowly and beautiful prose from Zack's book. I also learned that I don't like too much setting in chapter intros before something interesting happens, ehem Zack. Sorry, had to be a bit of a dick ;)

    1. Thanks, Tim!

      Yeah, that King quote's actually on my website. It's a good one I obviously agree with wholeheartedly. I tend to think it shows when writers are taking lessons from what they read. It shows in your work, definitely.

      And ha! That's not being a dick! You're right. I'm certainly not spending that much time on those settings in the sequel. it gets heavy-handed, I think, and I'd rather avoid that feeling in the future.

      Basically, what I'm saying is, "How DARE you say that?!"