Recently I reviewed D.B. Jackson’s historical urban fantasy Thieftaker and Mr. Jackson was gracious enough to take the time to answer my questions about the novel. Here he offers up some insight into how Thieftaker came about, his research process, and the difficulties in writing Colonial Noir Fantasy. He also lets us in on a few of his plans for the future, including a sequel entitled Thieves’ Quarry. I’m looking forward to it! We’ve got five hardback copies of Thieftaker (with a gorgeous cover by artist Chris McGrath who, by the way, told us he enjoyed reading the novel) to give away to five commenters from the U.S. If you’d like to win a copy, leave a comment.
Welcome to FanLit, Mr. Jackson! We knew you formerly as David B. Coe. Why have you used a penname for Thieftaker?
D.B. Jackson: Thieftaker is what I call a historical urban fantasy, and as such is very different from the other books I’ve written. It’s set in our world rather than an imagined one. It has the historical component. Because it’s urban fantasy instead of epic fantasy, it’s leaner, faster paced. It has only one point of view character. In short, it’s as different from my older work as it could be. So in the interests of what’s known in the business as author branding, Tor suggested that we might want to do this book under a pseudonym. I agreed, and chose to use my first two initials and then a name that would honor my father, Jack, who died several years back. The name change is not a deep secret, so my old readers can still find me, but this way they come to the book expecting something different.
Thieftaker is an interesting mix of historical fiction, mystery, and fantasy. I’m curious if when you first came up with the idea, or during the writing, you thought of it simply as “story” or did you categorize it in your mind: “fantasy set in the past with some mystery elements,” “historical mystery with fantasy elements” or something along those lines. How do you think the prism through which you viewed it might have affected the writing?
Actually, in light of my answer to the last question, this might seem kind of funny, but the fact is when I first wrote the book, I wrote it as an alternate world fantasy. I envisioned something with the feel and pacing of urban fantasy, but in a world of my imagining. That said, I really just wrote a story without worrying too much about how it would be marketed. I knew that I wanted to do something tighter, darker, with something akin to a noir voice. And so that certainly influenced my writing throughout the process. But I try to approach all my books as “story” first and foremost. As soon as I start thinking too much about other factors, particularly commercial ones, it makes my writing too stiff and takes away from the spontaneity that I enjoy so much in writing fiction.
What was your starting point? Did characters come first? The setting? Did you create characters and “pour” them into a historical container, letting the history shape the characters? Or did you build up a setting and let characters arise from it?
The original idea for Thieftaker grew out of something I read about Jonathan Wild, London’s most notorious thieftaker, who lived in the early 18th century. Wild built an empire for himself by stealing goods (or having men in his employ steal for him) and then selling the most valuable and returning the rest for a finder’s fee. He grew rich this way, but he also became something of a folk hero, because it seemed like he could solve any crime!
Reading about Wild, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about thieftakers, using a Wild-like character as the nemesis for my hero, who would be an honest thieftaker. So, I guess you could say that the whole thing started with a character — not my hero, but his antagonist, which has never happened to me with any other book. The resulting characters? Well, first there’s my protagonist, Ethan Kaille, who is a conjurer as well as a thieftaker. He is also an ex-convict, a man with a dark past who is now scratching out a meager living. The Wild character I made into a woman, the lovely and dangerous Sephira Pryce.
When I talked to my editor about the book, and particularly about the historical origins of my idea for it, he asked why I didn’t make it into a historical instead of an alternate world. He thought I should set it in London. I didn’t want to do that for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that I don’t know London. But then it occurred to me to set it in Colonial America, in Boston, during the years leading up to the Revolution. I have a Ph.D. in U.S. history, so I knew the period as well as the city. There were actually no thieftakers in Boston at that time, but there could have been — there was no established constabulary, and it was a pretty lawless place. And, of course, with all that was happening politically, and with folks like Samuel Adams, James Otis, Ebenezer MacKintosh, and Thomas Hutchinson walking the streets, it was a fascinating place.
Once I started writing the book, my setting and characters, as well as my plotline, developed together, one feeding another, until there was a sort of synergy that propelled the whole thing forward. That tends to be true of all my work, though, and so I wouldn’t say that the setting here changed that element of my process too much. The one difference was that, because I was working in a historical setting, many of my characters wound up being real people. I could shape their demeanor and personality, but I also needed to glean what I could from historical sources to make sure that I wasn’t fictionalizing them too much. And the same was true of my descriptions of the city — I needed to be careful with my setting in ways I wouldn’t have been had the setting been entirely imagined.
Can you describe some of your research methods and maybe one or two examples of those serendipitous moments of discovery that always seem to happen in such endeavors? Did you learn anything that surprised you?
I started my research by falling back on my own knowledge of U.S. history. It has been years since I earned my doctorate, but I do still know something about the literature. And for what I didn’t know, I went to a friend who teaches at the college here in town where I live. So the first several weeks I spent reading history books about Boston, about Colonial politics, about law enforcement in the city, about the Stamp Act riots in particular (since the riots of August 26, 1765 coincide with the opening scenes of the book). Every time I learned something of value, I jotted it down. And more important, every time a question occurred to me I wrote THAT down and looked for sources that might provide answers. I also started looking for primary source material — things that would give me access to the thinking of the time.
I did have a couple of discovery moments that were just golden. One of them involved King’s Chapel, the oldest Anglican church in America, where several scenes in the book take place. I needed to describe the interior of the sanctuary, and I couldn’t find any detailed descriptions. That is, until I stumbled upon a document posted online by an architecture firm that was doing a historical renovation of the chapel. They described everything, and even did bore tests on the walls that revealed the color of the paint on the walls from as far back as the 1600s. Priceless. Later, I also found a pen and ink drawing of a historical character I had been trying to describe. Again, I had nothing, and then suddenly, with this discovery, I had everything I could have wanted. Very cool.
Something that surprised me? Well, as it turned out, British troops were not stationed in the city until 1768 (and actually book II in the THIEFTAKER CHRONICLES is about the occupation of Boston). I had thought they were there earlier, and so I needed to adjust my text in several places to remove all mentions of soldiers.
While we get a lot of recognizable names, the biggest historical figure we meet is Sam Adams. How did you decide to work him into the story? What sort of fine line, if any, do you need to walk with such a well-known character? Did you consider using any other historical figures?
Working in Samuel Adams seemed a natural choice. As you say, he’s a pretty important historical figure, and I thought that my readers would enjoy “meeting” him. And as a history geek I have to admit that I really wanted to use him, simply because I thought it would be cool. So yes, pretty much as soon as I decided to turn this into a historical and set it in Boston, I knew that he would be there.
The trickiest thing for me about using Adams, as well as other historical figures, was keeping in mind that I don’t “own” them the way I do my characters. I can do anything I want with Ethan Kaille. I could kill him off tomorrow, or turn him dark and evil, or whatever. Yes, I might tick off readers who have grown attached to him, but there is no disputing that in the end, I can do with him what I want. Not so, Sam Adams or Thomas Hutchinson or any of the other historical figures who appear in Thieftaker. I am merely borrowing them from history, and I have to be respectful of their legacies. So, I have tried to draw these historical characters in as nuanced a way as I can. Adams is true to himself in my book: He is devoted to the cause of liberty, he is intelligent and articulate, but he is also a bit prickly, as he is said to have been. And that’s important to me.
As for using other characters, I didn’t want this book, or any of the others, to become unrealistically crowded with “famous” people. That, I think, would have felt contrived. But I will use other famous characters in future books.
Both authors and readers of historical fiction have their own views as to just how wedded one should be to historical reality. Where do you fall on that spectrum? What sort of liberties (or Sons of Liberties), if any, did you take with the time period and why?
I want my books to be as authentic as they can be, while also being entertaining and filled with mystery, magic, intrigue, etc. Notice I said authentic, rather than “accurate.” There’s a reason for that. While I worked hard to get many details right in Thieftaker, I also started with two huge inaccuracies — you might even call them falsehoods. First, my lead character is a conjurer, and there were no conjurers in 1760s Boston. As much as we speculative fiction readers and writers hate to admit it, magic isn’t real. And second, as I mentioned earlier, there were no thieftakers in Boston at that time, either.
Thus, it may seem a bit odd that I would work so hard to get the facts of the Stamp Act riots right, that I would make every effort to make my setting and ambiance feel as they should, that I would study the clothing and weaponry and urban architecture of the period, when the central themes of my book are “inaccurate.” But while I know that I cannot recreate Boston “as it was,” I can create an alternate Boston that might have been. And for that to work, those historical details have to be as authentic as possible.
Ultimately, to answer your question more directly, I feel that I should do my best to get the history correct, right up to the time that historical accuracy comes into conflict with the exigencies of narrative and character, setting and tone. It’s a tough balance at times, but the bottom line is, when I’m writing the THIEFTAKER books, I’m a storyteller, not a historian, and I’m writing for a 21st century audience. My first loyalties are to my characters and my readers.
Speaking of magic, there is a spectrum of attitudes toward magic systems — how much to explain, how logical or “rule-driven” they need to be, whether power should be limited or unlimited, and so on. Can you address this with regard to Conjuring? For instance, Ethan can heal himself via magic — how do you safeguard against this becoming a free Get Out of Jail Card so that the story loses tension/drama because the reader never feels the character is in any danger?
I’m a strong proponent of writing magic systems that have set rules. One of the things I hate to hear people say about our genre is that because we have magic or “make believe” our characters can do anything to save themselves, or that it’s an “anything goes” writing environment. That may be true of poorly thought-out magic systems. But when a magic system is well conceived, it is as consistent as the law of gravity. It should also feel natural to the world in which it’s set. And yes, magic should have limits and costs, or else those with magic always win, and all the suspense is taken out of the story. Now, there can be exceptions to these “rules,” but to my mind, they had better be justified and easily explained within the context of the world and the book’s plot.
Conjuring, in Ethan Kaille’s Boston, is thought of by those who know little of such things, as something akin to witchcraft. And since at this time in history, people were still being hanged as witches, that view puts Ethan’s life in constant danger. He cannot reveal to the wrong person that he can cast spells, lest he be accused of being a witch. Also, his spells have to be “fueled” by something, usually blood. And even when they are fueled, they are also taxing for the conjurer. So, yes, Ethan can heal himself. But he can’t do so indefinitely without exhausting himself to the point where he is endangering his life. And if he is too badly hurt, he might not have the strength to conjure. Speaking more generally, he can’t just cast and cast and cast without consequences. Eventually, he will spend all his energy and either lose the ability to conjure, or kill himself through overexertion.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing Thieftaker?
I think the hardest part of writing the novel was combining that noir style of urban fantasy that I was after with a tone and voice that would feel authentically Colonial. To a certain extent those goals were at odds with one another — hence the difficulty. “Colonial” and “noir” don’t seem to go together. But I was trying to write something lean and dark, and I was also trying to make my point of view character very much a man of the eighteenth century. Once again, it’s the balance I mentioned with regard to historical accuracy and storytelling. It may be that Ethan is not quite as authentic as he might have been had I been writing straight historical fiction. And it may be that my story is not quite as lean and “noir-like” as it might have been had I set it in contemporary Boston instead of historical Boston. But the balance I found between the two works pretty well. It just took some work getting there.
Obviously, there is a lot of excitement to come in Boston of this time period. Do you plan on writing more stories set against this pre-Revolutionary War background? Or maybe moving on into the War itself? If so, will Ethan have to more fully choose a side?
Well, as I say, the second THIEFTAKER book, Thieves’ Quarry, is set in 1768, against the backdrop of the occupation of Boston by British troops. I have proposals in for two more books, one set in the summer 1769, during a smallpox epidemic, and the other in the winter of 1770, around the time of the Boston Massacre. I don’t know if I want to take the story into the war, or not. I haven’t decided that. I have thought that it might be interesting if Ethan had to leave Boston and go to another Colonial city — I’ve been considering Savannah, Georgia. But the answer to your other question is that even in the pre-war period, Ethan is constantly being pushed by events to take a firmer stand in the Tory-Whig debate. That has been part of my plan all along. As to which way he’ll go — well, you’ll find out as the series goes on. [Evil grin.]
One of the aspects of the novel I enjoyed was the pervasive sense of “between-ness” that we get — characters and countries on the cusp, neither one thing or another fully. The country is caught between loyalty and rebellion, between British and American. Ethan, among other things, is caught between being a Conjurer (using his power) and not (hiding his power), between two women, even apparently between his two sisters. Pell is caught between his church and his own desires/personality, and so on. Even the city, as you make clear in one passage, is between its former glory and importance and its upcoming importance while being currently overshadowed by New York and Philadelphia. Was this a deliberate theme?
Definitely, and it was one of the reasons I so wanted to set the story in Boston, as opposed to New York or Philadelphia. Boston is, in many ways, a reflection of Ethan. It is run down, past its prime, a bit seedy. So is he. It is at war with itself over the political issues of the day. So is he. It is closely tied to old fears and superstitions regarding witchcraft, and his life is shaped by such fears. I loved being able to play with those parallels. And in the same way, I wanted to create characters who were facing the internal turmoil that is so much a part of human existence. In fact, in the second book we even see some of this in Sephira, who would seem to be the last character you’d expect to be conflicted about anything.
I have the same question about the very stark contrast between Ethan and Sephira, the other thieftaker. She is his opposite in so many ways. I’m wondering if that was deliberate — having them be such polar opposites in so many ways.
Again, yes. Ethan is basically alone. He is without resources — financial or otherwise. He lives his life in shadows, fearing what will happen if too much of his past is revealed. He is scarred, half-crippled, aging. Sephira, on the other hand, is famous, and revels in her notoriety. She has the advantage over her rival in manpower, in wealth, in her ability to walk the streets free from fear of anyone. She is beautiful and sexy. She is, in short, everything he is not. Including being a conjurer, and therein lies his one advantage. I wanted her to be his opposite; I’m glad to know that it came through. But I also wanted to draw them in shades of gray. Yes, she is cruel and capricious, but she is delightfully so, and I know that many of my readers are going to love her. I also know that at times they will not like Ethan, and that is all to the good. As much as they’re opposites, they are also meant to be human, and therefore not completely “black and white.”
We meet so many youthful protagonists in fantasy (by youthful I don’t just mean teen, but character in their 20s who have yet to fully experience life). Ethan, on the other hand, we meet really in media res. He’s loved and lost, he’s mutinied and failed, he’s not only been tried and convicted and served his sentence, but did so a while ago, he’s run into a conjurer villain who gave him lots of trouble. We get all these interesting tidibits of his past which make him a more intriguing and a more fully-realized character (not to mention offering up lots of potential plot threads for the future). Can you talk a bit about the decision to offer up an older-than-usual main character?
Let me offer you a brief anecdote. My wife is a biologist and we have a friend, who is also a biologist. Early in his career, this friend studied sexuality in birds. This was at a time when he was first married and he and his wife were having children. Now, in his middle age, he studies aging in birds. Often our work reflects our lives; the things that interest us are the things we’re experiencing.
I wrote those young characters of whom you speak in my earlier work. I’m older now, and I find some of those younger characters less interesting. Ethan, as you say, has lived. He has suffered, he has failed, he has loved and lost. He has been injured, maimed even. I wanted a character with a past, and a dark one at that. Part of it, as I mentioned, was that desire to draw parallels between my protagonist and my setting. But part of it was also a desire to do something different, to come up with a fantasy character who is nothing like other characters one encounters in our genre. And part of it was a middle-aged man being a bit narcissistic.
A few non-Thieftaker questions. First, what are you currently working on?
I have a few things percolating right now. I have written book II of the THIEFTAKER CHRONICLES, but I still have not revised it. I’m waiting for a revision letter from my editor. And I will soon be starting work on the third book in the series. I also have two contemporary urban fantasies written, one of which needs a bit of tweaking before my agent and I begin to shop it around, and one of which needs a major rewrite. And I have a middle grade book that I’ve been working with off and on for a couple of years. I really need to finish that.
I have some short stories in the hopper, and am spending a lot of time these days promoting Thieftaker. Plus, I’m a Dad and a husband — I have a lot on my plate. And that’s a good thing.
What fantasy authors, if any, have you read lately? What sort of reading do you like to do outside of fantasy?
I am currently reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, and prior to that, as preparation in a way, I read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. I have a tall To-Be-Read pile right now that includes a manuscript by a friend, as well as a couple of dozen epic fantasies, science fiction books, and urban fantasies.
When not reading in genre, I tend these days to read classics that I managed somehow to avoid earlier in life (like the Austen titles). I also enjoy modern literature — Annie Proulx, Tim Winton, Barbara Kingsolver. Generally, I prefer fiction to non-fiction.
Finally, a question I always like to ask is if you can recall for us one or two of those magical moments of response to a particular scene in a book or two — those sort of “shiver moments” that make one fall in love with the magic of reading all over again or that we carry with us for years afterward.
All right, but I have to give a spoiler alert before I begin. Years ago I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s FIONAVAR TAPESTRY (a trilogy consisting of The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road). It was my first exposure to Kay, who has since become one of my favorite fantasy writers. His worlds are incredibly rich, his characters grab hold of your heart and won’t let go, and his prose is just lovely.
Many years later, I read one of his newer books, Ysabel, which is also just terrific. And in the middle of it, characters from the FIONAVAR books show up. It was totally unexpected, like having a long-lost relative show up at my door, and it literally brought tears to my eyes. That’s how happy I was to “see” these characters again. And it brought home to me how powerful storytelling can be, how deeply it can touch us. It was, as you say, a magical moment.
Thank you once more for taking the time to respond to these questions.
It’s been my pleasure. Thanks for having me on your site.
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, Thieftaker, volume I of the THIEFTAKER CHRONICLES, has just been released by Tor Books. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera. You can follow him at his website, Facebook, and Twitter.
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Next time: Stacey Jay