Jim C. Hines’ latest novel is Unbound, the third in his Magic ex Libris series about a magic-wielding librarian, a dryad, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg, a flaming spider, and an enchanted convertible. He’s also the author of the Goblin Quest series, the humorous tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider which actor and author Wil Wheaton described the book as “too f***ing cool for words,” as well as the Princess series of fairy tale retellings, which features Snow White as a witch, Sleeping Beauty as a master martial artist, and a Cinderella with an enchanted glass sword. His short fiction has appeared in more than 50 magazines and anthologies.
Jim is an active blogger about topics ranging from sexism and harassment to zombie-themed Christmas carols, and won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2012. He has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters in English, and lives with his wife and two children in mid-Michigan. You can find him online at www.jimchines.com.
Iulian: Jim, I can trace your first works to the early 2000s. Since then you’ve put 9 fantasy novels under your belt and lots and lots of short stories. How was your life before all that? How/where did you grow up, any particular influences in your life, and, of course, what jobs have you had/have alongside your writing career?
Jim: I grew up in Michigan, and when I finished high school I originally wanted to become a psychologist. Four years in an undergraduate psychology program killed that dream—too much emphasis on statistics and doing original, publishable research, and very little actual working with people. I did a Master’s program in English, with a vague idea about teaching at the community college level. The lack of available teaching jobs led to a move to Nevada, where I learned how to fix computers. Those skills got me a job with the State of Michigan, which is where I work now, because unfortunately, writing novels doesn’t come with benefits or a stable paycheck.
When it comes to writing-how did you start, what pushed you to in that direction, and when did you know that you were ready?
I dabbled in writing growing up. I’d write these horrible one-page stories, completely ridiculous, for the sole purpose of getting a laugh. As far as I know, only one friend still has copies of those, and I’m hopeful she’ll keep them hidden until after I’m dead. But I loved that I could write something and make people smile and laugh.
Later on, in college, I started writing a few short stories about our Dungeons & Dragons characters. Yeah, I was that geek. But I found I really enjoyed writing fiction, and soon I was applying to Clarion and submitting stories to magazines and getting rejected all over the place.
As for really feeling ready, I’ll let you know when it happens.
What can you name as main influences to your style, themes, motifs? I know you’ve mentioned before that playing Dungeons and Dragons in your youth had something to do with it. Where there any others?
I mentioned the D&D. I’ve also been a big SF/F reader for most of my life, so this is the genre that feels like home to me. I enjoy humor, and try to work lighter and funnier moments even into my more serious work. Once I was married and had children, I found myself writing about various family themes. If not for my daughter, I don’t know that I would have ever started writing my Princess series.
Your style is different than what one would expect when thinking about fantasy. There’s humor, likeable goblins, and badass princesses. How hard is it to write good fantasy humor (and we know it’s hard because there’s not a lot of it!)?
It’s hard to write good fiction, period. Writing humor is a skill like any other. It takes practice, and you’re going to fail sometimes. Just like I had to learn how to develop fantasy worlds and characters, how to invent magical systems, how to plot stories, and so on, I also had to learn how to create humor in a way that didn’t derail or interfere with the story. Some of it is wordplay, some of it is setting up characters and voices that conflict in entertaining ways. And some of it is the fact that I’ve had 40 years’ experience being a smart-ass, which gives me a lot to draw on.
What would you call the defining moment in your writing career, the moment when you knew you turned pro? What story, market, or anthology had a part in that?
There have been a lot of moments. Getting the phone call that I’d taken first place in Writers of the Future was huge. My first professional sale to a magazine. Selling a story to Esther Friesner’s Turn the Other Chick anthology was a turning point, because I had always loved those books. To see one of my stories in a Chicks anthology was awesome.
Selling Goblin Quest to a major publisher was probably the biggest turning point. Looking back, that’s where a lot of things changed for me.
But I also want to point to a moment in early 2001. There were no particular sales or milestones, but that’s when I had come back from Nevada and was job-hunting here in Michigan. I ended up taking a job specifically because it would allow me to devote more energy to writing. I feel like I was making a conscious decision to stop messing around and really give this writing thing everything I had. It wasn’t a dramatic moment, but it was an important one.
Tell us a little bit about the Magic Ex Libris series, and especially about Unbound which is about to be published on January 6, just two days from now?
Magic ex Libris is a modern-day fantasy series. Most people classify it as urban fantasy, even though the protagonist, Isaac Vainio, is from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is about as far from urban as you can get. Isaac has the ability to reach into books and pull out anything from the story that will fit through the pages. And he’s a major SF/F geek, meaning he’s running around with laser swords and disruptor weapons and magic potions and all sorts of fun stuff.
There’s also Lena Greenwood, a dryad with a pair of wooden swords, Nidhi Shah, a psychiatrist whose job is to try to keep all of these magic people sane, and of course, Smudge the fire-spider.
In some ways, these books have been my love letter to the genre. They’re also about hope and optimism. I’ve read a lot of grim and gritty fiction, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I personally prefer more of that hope, that sense of wonder. Isaac loves magic. He thinks it’s amazing in all its forms, and he’s constantly searching for new ways of using it. It’s let me have a lot of fun with the books.
There will be at least four books in the series, but book three (Unbound) wraps up a lot of things I’ve been working with. Isaac has had a pretty rough time of it, and he starts out in a darker place, trying to repair some mistakes from Libriomancer and Codex Born. There are monsters and thousand-year-old mysteries and lightning guns and battles at Fort Michilimackinac and all sorts of fun stuff.
It looks to me like you are focusing a lot on novels (correct me if I’m wrong). What is your current stance on short stories? Is this something that takes away time from novel writing, or is it a good vessel for stirring up your imagination? What are short stories for you?
I enjoy writing novels and short stories both, but the reality is, novels pay significantly better, and that’s something I’ve got to consider. At least until we pay off the mortgage and get the kids through college. I still try to do a few short stories each year, and they’re a great place to experiment and try new things. It’s also nice to take a break from the world of the novels. I’ve spent three years writing Isaac’s story, so it helps to step away and do a short piece about a fairy tale biker gang, you know?
You write speculative fiction (short and long), and non-fiction. What is your writing process, and how do you manage to juggle so many things? Do you have clear goals set ahead of time, or are you more of a spur of the moment kind of writer?
I write every day during my lunch hour at work. I’ve found I can be pretty productive with those five hours a week. I also try to get some writing done in the evenings and on weekends. In the beginning, I could get through most of what I needed during my lunch breaks, but that just doesn’t cut it anymore.
My deadlines certainly help keep me motivated, as well as giving me clear goals. I know I have to have Revisionary turned in by August 1 of this year, and I know I usually need at least three complete rewrites before I let my editor see a book, so I can do a rough estimate in my head and figure out that…
… aw, crap. I, um, should probably hurry up and finish this interview so I can get back to that book.
If you were to choose one favorite novel and one favorite short story from your own works, which one would it be?
My favorite short story, at least right now, is “Stranger vs. the Malevolent Malignancy,” which is available online at Podcastle. I originally wrote it for a humor anthology called Unidentified Funny Objects 2. It’s a story about a superhero with terminal cancer. It’s probably the most challenging short story I’ve done to date, but I’m very proud of the results.
Favorite novel? That’s harder to say. I love them all for different reasons. Let’s just say whatever your favorite of my books is, that’s my favorite too. See? We’re bonding!
Who do enjoy reading lately? What was the last book that made a big impression, or, perhaps, a book you wish you could’ve written yourself? Oh, heck, let me go one step further: if you could chose an author to co-write a book with, who would that be and why?
I wish I’d had the opportunity to collaborate with Janet Kagan. She wrote wonderful, warm, joyful stories, full of life and determination and heart. I’ve joked about teaming up with Seanan McGuire one of these days… the results would either be awesome or terrifying. Or more likely, both.
I wanted to touch a little bit upon your activity outside of writing. You are very outspoken and a big supporter of equal rights and fairness, and a strong opponent of violence, especially against women. Tell us a little bit about that and feel free to post any links that you think might be helpful to people who are trying to get more involved in these causes.
I volunteered as a rape/crisis counselor in East Lansing before I ever got published as an author. I’ve also worked as the male outreach coordinator at a local domestic violence shelter and program. When my writing began to take off, I realized it had given me a bit of a platform, and that there were people out there who actually wanted to follow my blog and my Twitterings and so on. It was a little weird, but I wanted to use that platform to talk about the things that were important to me, including continuing to speak out about rape and other societal problems.
A lot of those problems are easy to ignore if they don’t affect you directly. Sometimes it’s malicious, but more often I think it just comes down to ignorance. Growing up a white man in the suburbs, I had no idea how much racism still existed. Likewise with sexism, homophobia, etc. I think we need to actively listen to other people’s stories and experiences, and to recognize that there’s still a lot of work to do, whether it’s “Best of the Year” book lists dominated by male authors, sexual harassment at SF/F conventions, whitewashed cover art, books being rejected because a character was gay, and so on.
It’s a broad question to try to provide links for, but there are a lot of groups and individuals talking about these problems and working in various ways to change them. The Carl Brandon Society (http://carlbrandon.org/), The Hawkeye Initiative (http://thehawkeyeinitiative.com/), and the Backup Ribbon project ( http://backupribbonproject.com/) are a few of the places doing good work.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Unbound just came out, and I’m currently working on book four in that series, Revisionary. I’ve got two anthology projects to write for in the coming months as well. There should be at least one more book out this year that I’ll talk about as soon as it goes public, and a couple of other projects I’m hoping to do, including a sequel to Invisible, a collection of essays I edited last year about representation in science fiction and fantasy. Also, I want to try to see and photograph Comet Lovejoy this week, assuming the weather allows it.
Also, for the past year or so, I’ve been hinting about a Secret Project I’ve been working on. The contract prevented me from talking publicly about the details … until now! FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES, a tie-in novel for Fable Legends, has started showing up on Amazon and other online retailers. My publisher gave me official permission to share some of the details on the blog.
Jim, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us. I can’t wait to read the new installments in your series!
Find below a selection of Jim Hines’ works:
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