Interview with Joseph Malik

When did you first start writing?
I wrote a story in junior high or early high school that won some kind of award, though I forget exactly what. I started the first draft of Dragon's Trail in 1987, my senior year of high school. I finished it in 1988 as my senior English project. I've been going through the rewriting and submission process since about 1990. It wasn't a nonstop thing; at one point I just shelved the whole idea of being a fantasy writer and put the project down for a few years.
What made you pick it up again?
I was critically injured on deployment in 2012. Some genius from my unit boot-and-nuked my laptop before they sent it home -- they weren't sure if I was going to make it, and my buddies didn't want my bereaved wife finding any porn. Their hearts were in the right place. So there I was in the hospital, and at one point my wife brought a hard drive to reinstall everything, and Dragon's Trail was on the drive. She'd pulled the folder from somewhere on our home computer and figured I might want it. It was still in WordPerfect. I had literally forgotten about it.

I was laid up for a few months, and I started working on it again to pass the time.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
Actually, that. In the folder with Dragon's Trail was an Excel spreadsheet of submissions dating back to the mid-90's. Dozens and dozens of rejections. In 1997, a major publishing house had requested a full manuscript, and then I didn't hear from them for six months. When I finally called them, they told me it was "being passed around." Then they kept it for another year without a word -- not returning my calls, nothing -- until they passed with a form letter. That was pretty much when I decided to stop taking this so seriously, and just write for myself. Though I continued to revise and submit for a few more years, that experience is ultimately why I gave up submitting. There's a reason they call it "submission." Assume the position.

Fast-forward to today. I'm sitting on a manuscript that was competitive in the major markets at the level of writing I had even 20 years ago, and I've been writing professionally for the last ten years and I wrote daily as a hobbyist for the ten before that. I've been rewriting and polishing the book for the past couple of years using a set of muscles I certainly didn't have back in 1997. And as it happens, the market is now such that I can hire my own editor, artist, and marketing team and put out a competitive product, retaining my rights and total creative control. All this, and it barely cuts into my Scotch budget. Why wouldn't I do it this way at this point?
What are your five favorite books, and why?
Wow. Only five?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Adams' use of the familiar omniscient and his viewpoint shifts for comedic effect are brilliant.

Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter. I read a lot of action and espionage thrillers. My predilection for the genre is what will likely set my series apart -- you assimilate the voices you read, we all do. Dragon's Trail is a spy thriller, and Book II is shaping up to be an action thriller. They read like thrillers; they're just set in motion by a portal fantasy trope.

Gravity's Rainbow. No, seriously. I keep a copy by my bedside. 800 pages of impenetrable, backwards-talking, hyperintellectual brain-porn. It's also very likely a sick practical joke played on the entire literary community, but the verdict is still out. I like to open it to a random page when I'm really tired because it makes for awesome dreams. "What are the stars but points in the body of God where we insert the healing needles of our terror and longing?" I mean, who writes like that anymore? Well, okay, maybe John Green on acid.

The Three Musketeers. One of the great fish-out-of-water stories.

How many is that? Four?

The Princess Bride by William Goldman. I love how Goldman -- like Adams -- is just sitting in your living room with a drink in his hand telling you this story. You forget that you're even reading. He's just there, talking to you. Such an amazing voice.
Describe your desk
It's an oak desk, heavy, simple, very neat. I write on a 17" laptop. There's a leather and felt desktop organizer in one corner of the desk with some magazines, mail, my good pens -- I'm partial to the Zebra G-301's in point-seven Mike, black -- and a few challenge coins. Next to that is a stack of books, a rungu stick, and a small cigar box where I keep my pipe and tobacco.

I hand-jam my beat sheets and flow charts on a yellow legal pad and there's typically an empty double rocks glass by my mousepad, which is from Star Citizen. Lately there has been a pile of boxes next to the desk; old writings dating back to 1987, when I wrote the first draft of Dragon's Trail. You can see them on my blog.

Behind my desk I have an executive-model Aeron chair. I figured if the most comfortable chair in the house was at my desk, I'd spend more time writing.
What do you read for pleasure?
Right now? The Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Publishing.

Okay, seriously. Mostly thrillers -- action and espionage -- but I think we covered that already. I also read a lot of military history and world history, particularly the root causes of current intractable conflicts. For a fantasy worldbuilder, these are basically how-to books.

I love brainteasers. I also have a bookshelf that's almost entirely linguistics theory: Chomsky, Lyle Campbell's work on language classification, some texts on computational semantics and stochastic grammar. It sounds dry, I know, but I worked in computational linguistics back during the dot-com boom, and I still love thinking about how we think about language. Metacognition is like heavy squats for your mind. As writers, our ability to relate our ideas is limited by our understanding of the bridge between thoughts and language. Ineffective, floundering writing is a result of believing everything you think.

And this may sound strange, but I have a large stretch of bookshelf that's nothing but old owner's manuals -- shop machinery operation guides from pre-WWII, appliance repair manuals from the 50's, Chilton's manuals. I pick them up at garage sales. Arcana speaks to me.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
I'm a compulsive 5 AM runner.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
Reading.

Also, I run, I box -- not competitively anymore, but I still lace up the gloves once in a while -- and I work part time. Our house is an old barn that we renovated, so there's always something to do around here. I'm still in the Army Reserve, in a unit with a high operational tempo, and that keeps things interesting. In the fall I bowhunt -- traditional archery, spot and stalk with a recurve. I also snowboard, I drink good Scotch, and I have an amazing wife and the world's greatest dog.
Published 2016-07-05.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.