My introduction to Joseph Robert Lewis happened through Goodreads and for that I'm eternally grateful. Omar The Immortal was the first book I read and I was hooked on to the world created. Since then I've been reading the other books in the Other Earth saga in Joe's preferred order & I'll be reviewing them over here soon as well. Until then read ahead to know more about Joe, his interests and the reasons for Other Earth creation and much more...
Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. So to begin with, for someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write? Could you also give us a bio?
JRL: Hi, and thanks so much for having me. My books say I’m “Joseph Robert Lewis” but that’s not because I’m pretentious, I just figured my names were so common that I would need to use all three to be remembered! Anyway, I have a terribly exciting degree in English literature, and by day I lead the wild life of a technical writer, working with scientists and engineers to build cool things and then explain them to the world. And we have the classic novelist bio closing line: I live in Maryland with my wife and daughters, a needy cat, and a zombie fish.
But at night I write novels that I like to call “historical fantasy” because they are set in an alternate but familiar world, a world of historical people and events, but also fantastical creatures and devices.
Q] In the past couple of years there has been a heady discussion about self-publishing. Many of my favorite authors such as J.A. Konrath and Barry Eisler have supported e-books and self releases. What were your thoughts in going indie for your Other Earth series? Did you try traditional publishing?
JRL: Prior to 2010, I had been submitting my work to agents and editors for several years, and I received a lot of personal, positive feedback, but no offers. So finally I decided that I would try self-publishing. It was a bit of a no-brainer actually, because in my day job I have worked as an editor, designer, and publisher already. The “work” was pretty easy for me.
But my rationale was essentially this: I can keep submitting novels to agents and probably achieve nothing (most books fail in the traditional system for one reason or another), or I can self-publish and probably achieve a little. And a little is better than nothing, so here we are. Eighteen months later, I have published twelve novels and novellas. I’ve made some friends, I’ve won some fans, and I’ve earned some extra income. It’s been wonderful.
If I had to guess, I’d say that history will probably look back and view the twentieth-century publishing companies (in books, music, and everything else) as a blip, an aberration, between the earlier and later periods of self-publishing where creators controlled their work and connected with their readers, listeners, and fans far more directly.
Q] When you started out did you have an overall plan for the Other Earth series, such as a set number of books (eight, as it turned out) to be written? How much of the plot do you plan out, or to quote George R.R. Martin, “are you a Gardner or an Architect” when it comes to your writing?
JRL: The Other Earth saga is the most accidental eight-book series ever. Before this, I had a laundry list of the types of books I wanted to write across all sorts of genres. I didn’t plan on writing any series because I personally find it a little boring when you have book after book of the same characters having painfully similar adventures in the same place. Remember how great The Matrix was? And remember how disappointing the sequels were? I wanted to avoid that.
But then I realized that if I created a truly diverse world, then I could write many of my different genre stories in this one shared setting. So I created the Halcyon Trilogy: The Burning Sky (steampunk), The Broken Sword (swashbuckler), and The Bound Soul (revenge). This was followed by the Europa Trilogy: Omar the Immortal (murder mystery), Freya the Huntress (Vikings versus werewolves), and Wren the Fox Witch (zombie horror). And lastly I wrote the Chimera Duet: The Dragon and the Lotus (mystical medical mysteries) and The City of the Gods (Egyptian mythology).
Each book shifts the focus to a different main character and a different setting, but all of the books are tied together by overlapping casts and story lines, which come together in the final book. Altogether, the series spans the adventure, mystery, horror, paranormal, fantasy, science fiction, and even superhero genres. Trust me, I was as surprised as anyone.
I do plan out each individual book, but those plans rarely survive to the end of the story. My outlines change all the time, but there is always a working outline so I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. This really helps to maintain the pace, structure, and focus of a story. I guess I’m a Gardner who builds a trellis, then when I see the book growing off in a new direction I redesign the trellis!
Q] What inspired you to fuse steampunk and alternate history to create the Other Earth books?
JRL: I was inspired by an awkward mixture of embarrassment and anger, specifically about racism and sexism in popular media. We keep seeing the same tropes over and over, and I think it usually reveals a sort of laziness or entitlement on the part of the creators (the writers) or the publishers (executives). So in my infinite pride and bravado, I figured I could do better.
I knew I really didn’t have the insight or the perspective to write a truly progressive or powerful book regarding race or gender (I’m the prototypical Straight White Male), but I knew I could at least try to write books with fewer tropes and more positive images and characters. So I tried. At that time I was interested in steampunk, which is usually focused on Victorian England or the Wild West, so I set out to write a steampunk adventure set in Morocco, with a matriarchal society, and a cast of heroes and villains that were mostly women. And it went on from there.
I have no illusions that I’ve created some beacon of equality in modern media, and I’ve probably used a few of those tropes I wanted to avoid, but I think for the most part that I have created a series that is full of diverse and positive images that I would be happy to see my daughters reading and emulating. And this concludes the After School Special portion of our interview.
Q] Speaking of research, I’m curious about how you approach a new novel. For example, do you start from scratch when you’re working on a new book or do you have a pile of ideas that you can choose from when you’re deciding what to write next?
JRL: I have a To-Write list as long as my arm, and it gets longer every day. So when I finish one project, I always have the next one lined up. And whenever I’m not writing but I still want to be productive, I go into my notes to develop new characters or book outlines, or hang out on Wikipedia trying to discover new ideas for characters, settings, or stories. By the time I’m ready to write the new book, I already have all the characters and outlines finished and I’m really excited to hit the ground running.
Q] So far you have dabbled in Alternate History, Fantasy, YA, Horror, and SF, and your books have been set in locations as varied as Spain, Morocco, Egypt, India, etc. Why this wanderlust in terms of genre and setting?
JRL: There are two reasons for my wanderlust. One reason is noble. The other reason… not so much.
First, the noble reason. I think a lot of books and movies today are fairly repetitive and unoriginal in their choice of settings. How many TV shows are set in New York or Los Angeles? Answer: All of them. (I rounded up.) So I think it’s well worth the effort to bring readers the sights and sounds of other places, other continents or cities or cultures. We live in a big world full of amazing things and it’s a little ridiculous that so much of our entertainment is filled with the same people in the same places.
And now for the less noble reason.
This may shock and surprise some people, but some writers like myself are a bit introverted. My idea of a great vacation is staying home and working on a book. (I also have the standard job/family situation that makes it hard to do much globe-trotting.) But at the same time, I love learning about our world and its history. So my compromise is to travel in my books, in my writing. And thanks to the Internet, you can do this in incredible detail. For example, I've combed through vacation photos on Flickr to see the glaciers of Iceland and used Google’s Street View feature to see every bench and tree in Paris. It’s not as good as being there, but it’s pretty good nonetheless.
Q] Your first series has had elements of Nordic, Russian, and Egyptian mythology in the main plots. How do you go about choosing these various mythologies and enmeshing them within your central plot structure? Do you pick these myths and then try to fit them within your plots, or do you structure your plots around these mythical aspects?
JRL: I’ve been mildly obsessed with world mythology since I was forced to read Edith Hamilton’s book Mythology (1942) as a child. I even took multiple (multiple!) classes in Norse mythology and poetry in college because I knew that one day that knowledge would be really, really useful. So basically I’ve been collecting all of these stories from ancient cultures, from Quetzalcoatl to Inari to Krishna, and now I’m really excited to have a way to tell these stories myself.
In Freya the Huntress, I retell the story of Odin’s violent self-sacrifice as told in the Poetic Edda. In Wren the Fox Witch, I visit Baba Yaga’s chicken-leg house of horrors. And in The City of the Gods, I explore the dysfunctional family relationships of the Egyptian deities. Sometimes these are just interesting asides, and sometimes they are central to the plots.
Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors whom you would like to give a shout out to?
JRL: To keep this short, I’ll limit myself to four answers. The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle, which is a lovely fairy tale full of lyrical language and lovely imagery. The Princess Bride by William Goldman, which is as exciting and romantic as it is genuinely funny. Hyperion by Dan Simmons, which explores an amazing science fictional universe using the story-telling techniques of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Wreck of the River of Stars by Michael Flynn, which presents a huge array of fascinating character studies with a lot of solid science and research. READ THEM.
Q] Your new YA book has a titular character who shares her name with an iconic videogame character. Was this coincidental?
JRL: There are no coincidences. I have played nearly every Legend of Zelda title since my brother and I scraped together the money to buy the first one for our NES in 1987. And for whatever reason (probably just basic childhood nostalgia, but let’s pretend it’s something more mystical), those games have been lodged in my brain for over 25 years now. But it’s always bugged me that it’s the same story over and over. Link saves Zelda, fade to black. Not anymore!
So in my new series, the young lady who saves the day is named Zelda (no one is named Link). I like the name so much that I tried to convince my wife to name our daughters Zelda, but she voted me down both times. Sorry girls, I tried.
Q] You have previously mentioned on your blog that when younger, you had no interest in English. However, you graduated college with a degree in English literature even though you had an aeronautical engineering major when you started. What instigated the change and could you expound on this major transition?
JRL: In high school I had some mean English teachers and a love of fighter jets, so my path in college was clear: aerospace engineer! And I’ll tell you what went wrong. I didn’t like the folks in my engineering classes, and I realized that I didn’t want to be around them, or become like them.
On the other hand, I loved my English classes. The teachers were funny (and seemed happy to be there) and I liked the people in those classes, so I decided to stick with English for the next four years. And things seemed to work out pretty well…
…except that I became a technical writer, and now I hang out with engineers all the time. But only the cool engineers!
Q] You are also writing and heavily involved in this fantastic project called “The Drifting Isle Chronicles.” Can you tell us about its inception, its growth, and anything else you wish for us to know?
JRL: Last winter I made a writer’s bucket list of projects I wanted to do. Movie scripts, comic books, and collaborative projects… and I decided to take a stab at that last one. So I put out a call for authors to write and publish a complete fantasy series together. And within a few days, I had my team. Over the last few months, I’ve been working with four other authors to invent a new fantasy world that combines steampunk styling with some original magical elements.
Now, we’re each writing our own novels in this shared world. Our plan is to publish our novels together later this year as a five-volume series, and then work together to cross-promote it. I’ve heard of other projects where authors contribute short stories to anthologies within a shared world, but this may be the first time ever that a group of authors have contributed whole novels simultaneously into a complete series.
So I hope everyone will check out the Drifting Isle Chronicles later this year.
Q] You currently write vastly different series. How do you go about writing them (do you delineate different time periods for writing them or do you write depending on how you feel each day)? Could you tell our readers about your writing methods? And particularly about the discipline required to produce more than 2 or 3 books a year?
JRL: Stephen King pointed out many moons ago that if you write just one page (300 words) per day, then you’d have a novel in one year. If you write three pages (1,000 words) per day, then you can write three to four novels in one year. Currently, I write anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 words per day.
Yes, that sounds like a lot. But it’s not that difficult. I work all day, and spend all evening with my family, so I don’t even get to start writing until the kids are in bed around 8 or 9 at night. But then I write like the Dickens! I did have to give up some hobbies like channel surfing, but I think it was the right choice.
Q] You have continued to have a very active online presence via your blog and social media. Tell us about the chaotic nature of these tasks, which fill up an author's life nowadays.
JRL: I am pretty clueless about social media. My SEO is terrible. My blog post titles are not optimized, nor are my keywords. I have no idea what makes for a good tweet. And I’m pretty sure that I’m blogging and tweeting at the wrong times of the day, so no one is even seeing what I write.
I’ve set some simple rules for myself: Blog about things I actually care about, and try to make them relevant to my books. And the good news is that this does bring in readers who care about the same things I care about, and who do have an interest in my books, so I’ve been able to build a small community of folks with the same interests in stories, history, culture, media, and social issues.
Q] In closing, are there any final thoughts or comments that you'd like to share with your readers? What can we look forward to you in the future?
JRL: I’d just like to tell my readers that I’m tremendously grateful for their support, from all the kind reviews to the interviews and even the fan-art! Looking ahead, we’ll definitely be seeing more of Zelda Pryce and her magical machines, and then I hope to visit Japan at the birth of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and eventually return to science fiction with a sequel to Heirs of Mars. And that’s just for starters!