An Interview with . . . John R. Phythyon, Jr.

In my ongoing efforts to publicize State of Grace, I’ve been working on getting some interviews and reviews. I can’t very review my own book, but I do know how to ask interview questions. So here are some of my thoughts on publishing, State of Grace, and my burgeoning career as an author:

What made you want to become an author?

I am a storyteller by nature. As a kid, I made up adventures for superhero and Star Wars figures. In high school, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and was the dungeon master from the very beginning. In normal conversation as an adult, I always have a story to tell. Becoming an author has been a dream since college, and it’s pretty much just a formalization of who I am.

Why did you decide to e-publish instead of going the traditional route?

I wrote three novels before State of Grace that I tried to sell the traditional way through an agent. I have a drawer in my desk thick with rejection letters from agents who, for one reason or another, didn’t believe in those books.

When I finished State of Grace, I contemplated attempting the same thing. However, I came across blog entries by several self-published e-authors, including the highly influential Joe Konrath, that convinced me the time had arrived for electronic books. With the explosion of e-readers at Christmas 2010, e-publishing was now a very viable, emerging market instead of just a new twist on publishing. On top of that, distributors like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords are offering vastly superior royalties to what you can get from a traditional legacy publisher, and the risk of publishing an e-book – the cost of getting it done – is really low.

So, with all that in mind, I decided it was time to try what was working for other people. I skipped the traditional route and went into business for myself.

Do you feel like a “real” author even though you self-published?

Yes. I’ll grant that an agent or a publishing house didn’t agree to buy my book. But the world is changing. The costs of doing business are so low for e-publishing and the desire by consumers for eBooks is high enough that there is no longer a real need for gatekeepers. Consumers don’t care if the books are published by one of the Big Six or an independent author. They just want to read a good book. E-publishing is a viable business model.

Moreover, I believe in my book. I believe there is a market for an adventure story that marries the elements of a James Bond thriller and a traditional fantasy setting. This sort of genre fusion is standard in the hobby games industry, where I learned publishing, and people are always looking for different things. If a legacy publisher or an agent doesn’t believe in my book because they don’t recognize the market for it or they are afraid of the costs of pushing a new author, that’s their loss. I am willing to bet on myself.

And if I lose, no one gets hurt (except maybe my ego). It cost less than $50 to publish State of Grace. If I sell hardly any copies, I’ve lost almost nothing. But if it sells even remotely well, and sustains my writing career, then all my dreams come true.

So, yes, I feel like a “real” author. I wrote a damned good book, and I’m working my butt off to sell it . . . which is exactly what I’d have had to do if a legacy publisher had picked it up, except that, this way, I’ll make more per book.

What’s State of Grace about?

As I mentioned, it combines Bond-style action with fantasy. The plot concerns a human secret agent with special powers who must travel to a nation of elves to find out who murdered one of his colleagues. The elves are in the midst of a political crisis, having split into two countries as a result of a religious schism. The main character, Wolf Dasher, must navigate an unfamiliar culture to uncover a plot for a coup that will upset the balance of power in the world.

But the novel is really about faith and nationalism. Wolf is an atheist and a patriot. Elves are the most devout people on Earth. The villain is a zealot but also a patriot. The two of them clash over what loyalty to one’s country really means and over the role of God and religion in political life.

The world I’ve created is loosely based on the U.S.-British situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wolf’s country, Urland, has troops in the elf nation, Alfar. They are there to support the rightful government and protect Urlish interests. Suicide bombers (who use wands instead of explosives) are attempting to destabilize the situation and overthrow the government. One of the themes is how we are attempting to enforce our will on a culture we don’t really understand. For all his earnest intentions, Wolf is a fish out of water when he travels to Alfar.

What made you want to write that sort of book?

First and foremost, I love Bond-style adventure. I’ve been wanting to write a spy thriller for years.

Second, making it a fantasy novel not only opens a second market for me, it allows me to create situations and characters without having to be an expert on U.S. foreign policy or espionage. What I know about spies I mostly learned from movies and books. By taking my story out of the real world and putting it in a fantasy one, I don’t have to worry about authenticity.

Finally, I wanted to write a book that was a little more than a standard adventure. I wanted to say something. I’m no expert on Iraq or Afghanistan, but I do know that Western and Islamic cultures are different. We can get along, but I don’t think either culture (as a group) makes a very strong effort to do so. We need to spend time getting to understand each other and learning how to coexist. The problems in the Middle East are complex, and the solutions are not simple. State of Grace attempts to illustrate this point.

You make it sound more like a literary novel than a genre piece.

When I was in college I took a terrific course on science fiction and fantasy literature. My professors had us read a number of classics – The Hobbit, Brave New World, Out of the Silent Planet, The Once and Future King, etc. In the class, we learned about basic tropes and structure for science fiction versus fantasy novels. But we also discussed the themes of the books. My professors asserted that the purpose of writing a fantasy or sci-fi book was to talk about something important but to give the reader the safety of distance. It’s much easier to think about the implications of language manipulation and government surveillance if we do so in the context of a dystopian future, as George Orwell does in 1984. Making a certain group of people into a fantasy race makes it easier to celebrate or condemn their culture, as Tolkien does with elves and orcs in Lord of the Rings.

And you can do that in a James Bond-style thriller?

Yes. Bond is the enforcer of Western culture. During the Cold War, he was triumphing over the Soviets. Now, he confronts terrorists and other enemies of Western-style freedom.

In the same way, Wolf Dasher goes to Alfar as the instrument of Urlish foreign policy. Once there, he discovers things are a lot more complicated. He continues to defend Urland’s interests, but he also acquires an appreciation for Elfin culture and becomes invested in protecting Alfar from her enemies. By setting all this in a fantasy world, we get some distance so we can consider these issues safely.

Will we be seeing more of Wolf Dasher?

Yes. I’ve released a free Wolf Dasher short story called, “The Darkline Protocol.” It’s set a few years before State of Grace and introduces the character. You can get it by clicking here.

I’m also writing the sequel, Red Dragon Five, right now. That book is also set in Alfar and further develops the elves we meet in State of Grace, while exploring issues of family and love. And, of course, there’s a bad guy with a devastating plot Wolf has to stop.

What’s next?

In addition to Red Dragon Five, I plan to get some other things published this year. I have a short story, “The Coronation of King Charles III” that should be out by the end of the month. It’s a fantasy as well and is about religion and politics and women’s rights. Next month, I will release another short story, “Sleeping Beauty,” which is a modern retelling of the classic fairytale. Plus, I’m working on getting State of Grace into print through Amazon’s CreateSpace.

After that, I’ve got some other projects in various phases of completion. My goal is to have three novels and several short stories published by the end of the year. I’m hoping once I have numerous works available for sale, I’ll be earning a sustainable level of income. Publishing State of Grace made me an author. Now I want to do it for a living.


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