Creativity @ Work · Nov 23, 2016

Author Interview: Jesse Teller

Today's interview is with fantasy author, Jesse Teller.

1. When did you start writing? When I was in fifth grade, I wrote my first story. I had been waiting a long time for that assignment, I think. The idea of writing was never presented to me before that. I was for playing guns and watching cartoons—and chores, lots of chores. But other pursuits were not shown to me. When the idea of writing was given to me, I kind of sat there shocked. My teacher told us to write a short story and my jaw fell open. I was an apprentice storyteller at that time. Looking back now, I can see that it’s what I was making my life about. Nothing entertained me as much as a well-told story, and I’ll tell you, my family was great at it. When I heard I could write those stories down, my mind was never the same. I suddenly had the authority to create work that could be read for years to come. The difficult part was that no one in my family wanted to read it. I didn’t find an audience for a long time.
2. What are your books about? The first 2 are about a boy. The reader will not meet him for a while. Now, he is not the main character of all the books. He is the undercurrent, the jet stream, the constant that is pushing it all forward. His name is Peter Redfist, and he is being formed into a leader. His people are in dire need of a form of leadership that only he can give. When he was born, a shaman came out of the mountain and told his father to set aside his own crown and train Peter for the throne. That story is the main thread, but things spin off of it. My work discusses a theme, a simple idea I came up with when my oldest boy was about four.
What if we raised our children on purpose? Not just as a thing we did while we traveled the world, but if we sat down and made a list of the things they needed to know. If we decided who came into their lives based on what that person would teach them. If we curbed every word, if we asked ourselves the constant question: What will this action, what will this conversation, teach my child? What if we raised them to be leaders of men and women? To be capable and ready to look at the world without flinching. What if we raised Peter Redfist?
3. What led to your love of literature? Any favorite books? Let’s start with The Jungle Books. Kipling is a god. His characterization of the animal, his law of the jungle, was really the beginning of it all. Never was I a fan of the Disney movie, and I enjoyed watching the live action because I can’t get enough Ka, but really the book is where it’s at. If you haven’t read it, walk away from the “Bare Necessities” and go looking for “Night-Song in the Jungle”.
I took my first literature class in high school with a teacher named Judith Learmann. She took me by the hand and pulled me, sometimes kicking and complaining, through English literature. First time I really looked at a poem not written by Poe. First time through Canterbury Tales. First time hearing A Modest Proposal by Swift. Man, I didn’t know the written word could do things like that. Once you have read Frankenstein, I'm telling you, there is no going back. You can’t Macbeth and walk away. You’re in it now. Writing and books are just part of the way of your world.
The literature started with Mrs. Learmann. She was also the newspaper teacher. I wrote for her paper. We created a serial writer column for the paper. My pen name was Charlie Poet, taken from two earlier serial paper writers, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe. I bequeathed that pen name to a junior when I graduated.
4. What's your writing process like? Starts with coffee. For me, everything starts with coffee. Today I didn’t get my coffee. I had to drink tea. I didn’t really get started working until 2:45. So, yeah, coffee. Then I spend time talking to my wife. She gets me going. Revs me up, gets me spry and limber. She is a genius, and spending time with her is both invigorating and relaxing. By the time she is done with me, I am sharp, at the top of my game. Then, into the office.
Email first, then Facebook. Gotta clear the mind, and looking at the benign will do that. Seeing a picture of a croissant that a person across the country ate for breakfast has a way of pulling you out of the real world and shoving you into fantasy. Suddenly, it is important what people are eating. Suddenly, a post about a spill someone made on the carpet is worth your time. The minutia of it all gets me in a place where I am looking at details, paying attention to the subtle things about life. Then YouTube.
When I go to YouTube, I’m in it for the music. I can watch any music video ever made by anyone. I listen to good music, powerful music—White Buffalo, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash. It gets me ready, gets me to clench my fist. Then I write.
Coming down is just as important, like stretching after a workout, more Facebook, more videos. This time Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift. They pull me out of the horror and the darkness. They reach in with delicate hands and gently guide me out of whatever bloody battle, or intense scene, I have been caught in. They brush me off and shove me out into the world again.
Until tomorrow.
5. What's your Editing Process? My books in rough draft are a mess. They are all gristle and bone, handfuls of fat and traces of skin. They need to be done again. They need another chance on the block. I have an editor, a master named Lorin Oberweger, who shows me all the cuts I made wrong and the weaknesses in my technique. I reread the work. I know what I'm doing now. I have a blueprint. I know how to slaughter this pig now, so I start over. I pull up a blank document and write the scene, chapter, book, all over again. This time, I have gotten away from it a bit. Before this, I haven’t looked at the rough draft for over a year. Now I see better what I was trying to do, what I was doing well, and what I messed up bad. When I get the work done, I have mostly meat. I have taste testers. Traci Curran and my wife read the work and tell me their thoughts. Beta readers are more important than you think. After that, the finer parts are done, trimming fat and gristle. Then I send it to a man, who knows grammar much better than me, for his editing. Then I'm done.
6. Any favorite apps/software/ technology for writing? OK, this is vital. My favorite weapon is my keyboard. I used to buy these cheap ones. They were slightly curved, soft touch keys, very quiet. I had to replace them a lot. When I wrote Eastgate, it was 810 pages long, and I went through three of these boards. The letters rubbed off. The letters started doubling or not registering at all. I did research to find that the keyboards I was buying were designed for 50,000 to 100,000 words. Eastgate was over 250,000. It was the first in a seven-book series. This keyboard was not going to get it done. Looked at the board industry hard and found Deck Boards. They are designed for gamers who hit the same keys thousands of times a night. It lasted me a few years before it started doubling keys on me. T, S, E, M, O would double every time I typed them. That keyboard had given me 1.4 million words. I took it as a win and moved on. Now, I have been with this old girl for a while and I can’t get enough of her. Rosewill Helios has typed over 1.9 million words for me. No sign of wear. She is backlit. Her keys can shine red, or what they will me is green but looks yellow to me. She is my girl until she starts giving me fits. When that happens, I’ll probably have a funeral for her. She is part of the family.
As far as software, look into Scrivener no matter what you write—play, screenplay, poem, research paper, everything. It is awesome for every kind of writing known to man. Check them out. You won’t be disappointed.
7. What did you find most useful in learning to write? You’re gonna laugh at this, but there is one skill that is by far the most important, that helped me more than any other, and that I am still terrible at, and that is typing.
When I started my first book, I didn’t know how to type, had no idea. I had a set number of words I had to reach every day. That number was 2,000. It was my quota. So, I woke up in the morning, and got a legal pad and started writing. Wrote out ten pages and went to type it up. While I was typing, I would add to it, and in the end get 2,000 words every day.
But, that day was a long one. It took me hours of typing to get it done, hunting for one letter after the next, peck and hunt and sigh. The book was called Chaste. It comes out October 5, 2016. The rough draft was terrible and 776 pages long. 776 pages of hunt and peck. I got better and better, and by the time I was done, I felt like I was flying. But it wasn’t until I was about 60 pages into Eastgate that I found my stride. By then, I was able to do 2,000 words in one hour. Upped my quota to 3,000. Now I do that everyday. Takes about an hour and twenty minutes.
8. Where do you get your book ideas? I started in fantasy with Dungeons and Dragons. Told a lot of good stories. Got a lot of ideas. Never ran a prefabricated game. I couldn’t afford them at first, then it was a pride thing. I didn’t need games plotted out for me. I could make them up as I went. The games are not books, but it created the world. There are a few characters I use that other people ran, but the stories are never the same. Most of it is just the character’s name, as tribute to the people I played with. The incarnation of the characters are completely different, but the cities are the ones I used in the game. My wife is a graphic designer and she originally created the map for the games. The world was of my own creating, and it feeds off of itself. Once I had written the first two books, the world just sort of took off.
9. Where do you feel most inspired to write?

Jesse's office

The office was set up to produce. When we moved to this house, I was in the middle of a novel. I had to take two weeks to pack up the old house. I had to take two weeks to set up this one. The office was finished first. We still had boxes for every single room when this room was complete. We had to buy furniture, had to paint my walls and my magnetic wall. We had to unpack dozens of boxes and hang pictures and unpack shelves. I was in the middle of a book, and I needed to get back to it. I picked up and kept going from the word I finished on. Took me another two months to write the end of that book, and I was on to the next.
That room is made for work. Everything revolves around work. That room is designed to be a shrine to fantasy. You should see these walls, should see the shelves that hang next to the closet. The bookshelves are littered with fantasy. The very walls breathe dragon’s breath. It stinks of blood and sword oil in that place. I can’t walk into that room without wanting to write. It kinda takes over. The old desk, the loud keyboard, that room was built for the world of magic. Can’t not want to work there.
10. Describe your desk. This old relic was picked out of a furniture store that didn’t want it. The salesman gave it to me free just to get it out of the store. He had been trying to sell it for over 19 years when I walked in, and it was exactly what I was looking for. I had been to every used furniture store in the city, every one of them.
It is the last of the old army desks. Solid steel, it weighs more than a truck. I can kick it when I’m frustrated, and it shrugs it off. Six drawers. Two pull-out shelves. A linoleum top that looks like a shop floor. It is gray, they say a little green, but I can’t be sure. It has a big top to it, maybe five-foot by three-foot. It is modest but immense.
It has seen a business fail, as the salesmen that gave it to me said it used to be an office desk for a factory that went out of business. It has seen failure before and warns me of it. It is dented in places from some abuse it has yet to tell me about. There is not a spot of rust on it. To be honest, I think rust is afraid of it. I have never asked this thing to do anything it was not ready to do, never found a weakness or a chink. It is perfect for my world, perfect for my writing. It is a worker, not bent on looks but function, not created for anything but to last and serve. It understands me, and me it. It will be my headstone when I die. Until then, it is my partner.
11. Do you ever get Writer's Block? How do you get around it?
In my world, Writer's Block is a myth. Sometimes I take a day off to let an idea sit and rest, like a piece of meat off the grill, but I never stop. The truth about Writer’s Block is, it exists within the mind and not without. The idea is that the ideas won’t come, that the writer stares at a blank page, a blank document with fear gripping them and the inability to create. It’s bullshit. Your own fears have worked their way into your head. For those of you out there who are suffering from this malady, I want you to listen very carefully. Pull in close and believe. This is a petty thing to get caught up by. Just start typing. Swallow your pride and pound out crap. It’s like a faucet that has not been used for a decade. When you turn it on, it sputters. It spills out water, dingy and rancid. It hisses and whines. But when you let it run for a while, the pure water comes after the toxic has had its day.
If you are suffering from Writer’s Block, you will write crap for a while. You will hate every word that comes out of your fingers. But you gotta keep pounding. Let the dingy water out. The faucet was designed for purity. It will find its way back to crystal clean, but not unless you let it run. So, write nonsense for a while. Don’t use your lack of brilliance as an excuse to let “Writer’s Block” tie you up.
No other art has this. Painters are afraid of a blank canvas, but they have not constructed a ready-made excuse for not working. They don’t label their inadequacies with a mythical name that inspires fear in them. They just admit they are afraid of failure. Dancers don’t get Dancer’s Block. A bassist doesn’t label a bad gig as a block. He calls it an off night and gets back to his work the next day. No excuses. No labeling your crap or your fear. Just work. That is all there is. Some of it is good, some of it is bad, but it is there. Just work.
12. What project are you working on now?
At this moment, I am on break. I promised my wife I would not write a word this month because I wrote two books last month, and I didn’t get to see her that month. I'm making up for lost time, but I am always working.
The next book is called Bladesport. It is about a city that has been conquered by three horrors. It is isolated by the ocean, and never really had a government, but when the overreaching lord is overthrown, darkness seeps in. Three monsters take over the town. One is a half demon named Darkfess. He runs a gladiator arena and all the atrocities that come with it. He is damn near a god in his power and scope, and nothing has brought him down in his 370 years of life. The second horror is the slave trader. He has no name, no signs of emotion or empathy. He sells anyone he can get his hands on, and rules a mass of warriors and wizards too scared of being sold into slavery to question his motives or methods. The third is known as the Void. It devours people and changes them to monsters. The three powers keep the city in fear and create a darkness none can fight.
Peter Redfist has found out that three of his people are trapped in that gladiator arena, and he wants them back. He sells himself into slavery with his men so he can break his people out and end the terror of the three.
It’s gonna be fun. This is my first real attempt at a gladiator arena. Can’t wait for the 1st.
Jesse Teller fell in love with fantasy when he was five years old and played his first game of Dungeons & Dragons. The game gave him the ability to create stories and characters from a young age. He started consuming fantasy in every form and, by nine, was obsessed with the genre. As a young adult, he knew he wanted to make his life about fantasy. From exploring the relationship between man and woman, to studying the qualities of a leader or a tyrant, Jesse Teller uses his stories and settings to study real-world themes and issues.
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When her devout parents died, Cheryl turned her back on her god. Years of denial and self-loathing have defeated her. Her life consists of taking orders and succumbing to abuse. A group of strangers stops in Chaste for the night, but an unnamed threat is preying on the town. Tragic deaths have become more and more frequent. Cheryl wants to protect these travelers, expose the evil force, and save her fellow citizens, but she must find a way to believe in hope.
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