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A Conversation With John Marco
An interview with Trent Walters
May 2000

Copyright © John Marco John Marco
John Marco
John Marco was born and raised on Long Island, NY, and grew up reading and enjoying fantasy adventure stories. The Tyrants and Kings series is an expression of his passion for epic literature and military history. He is currently working on the next installment of the Tyrants and Kings saga.

John Marco Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Excerpt: The Grand Design
SF Site Review: The Jackal of Nar

The Grand Design
The Grand Design
The Jackal of Nar

Apparently, you've been wanting to write the Tyrants and Kings series for some time now. How long has the idea been rolling around your head? What idea or character sparked the series?
It seems like I've wanted to write this series forever, actually. Like a lot of fantasy fans, I had ambitions of writing my own fantasy novel since I was very young. I remember writing in junior high school, then later again in senior high, and a lot of those early ideas have found their way into the series. In the back of my head, I always knew that any book I write would be about subjects that fascinate me, like war and love and politics. It's probably that way for a lot of first time authors. They have these ideas knocking around their heads for years, then they finally decide to take the plunge and commit themselves to writing their story. That's how it was for me, at least. In a lot of ways, it was nice to finally get the story out of my system!

As for characters, the one that really sparked the series was Richius, who is the main character in The Jackal of Nar. In the original version of the book, the whole story was told almost exclusively through his viewpoint; he's really the engine of the story. Later, when the book went through rewrites, the other characters become more fleshed out and prominent, but Richius remained the central focus. It's really his book.

You've said that All Quiet on the Western Front strongly influenced the beginning of The Jackal of Nar. Did the inspiration for continuing the novel ever get "bogged down" later on? If not, what do you think prevented it?
Yes, reading All Quiet really did have an impact on me, because up until that time all that I had was a vague idea about the story; it didn't yet have a "voice." Reading Remarque's book changed that. I realized suddenly that I wanted my own story to have a strong central character, a young man caught up in a terrible war, just like the character of Paul Baumer in All Quiet. In a lot of ways, Paul is the model for my character of Richius. Of course, the comparison between the two books really ends there. Even though All Quiet on the Western Front had a lot of influence on me, it's great literature, and certainly more important than The Jackal of Nar could ever be. That's not meant as put-down to fantasy books -- I love them and always have. I just like to keep things in perspective. And I still keep a 30s edition of All Quiet on the Western Front near my desk.

Interestingly, once I finally got going on the book, it never really bogged down. It took a long time for me to write it, but that's not because I didn't have ideas or inspiration. By that point, the whole story had already been worked out. It's just that I was working full time, I was preparing to get married, and all sorts of the normal curve balls of life just got in the way. But the story itself really flowed for me, because there was a lot for me to draw on, like history and mythology, etc.

What kind detail do you go into with your outlines? How do you keep them fresh each time you sit down to write?
For The Jackal of Nar, I went into extensive detail in the outline. I had hundreds of pages of notes, and the actual outline itself was well over a hundred pages. That seems ridiculous looking back at it, but I think I needed to have that kind of detail. I needed to have the world fully fleshed-out and the story firmly pinned down before I began, probably as a way to boost my confidence. The sad part is that a lot of that outline never even got used. If I had put everything into the book that was in the outline, The Jackal of Nar would have been even bigger than it turned out to be.

Keeping outlines fresh hasn't been a problem for me, at least not so far. I wait until I have a story idea that interests me, and then I begin outlining it. Plus, writing the second and third outlines was much easier, because I already had so much of the world constructed. So these outlines were much smaller than the first one. In fact, all the outlines I've done have gotten progressively smaller as I've gone along. Hopefully that means I'm doing something right. And unlike some writers, I really enjoy the whole outlining process, because it's my first real introduction to the story. It's also an invaluable road map. I'm always fascinated by writers who don't work from outlines, because I don't think I could pull that off. My brain just doesn't seem to work that way.

Of the material left out of your original outlines, how much of it still begs you to return to it later on?
Oh, a lot of it. There's still so much I'd like to explore in the world of Nar that I haven't gotten to yet. I've done three books in Nar so far, but sometimes I feel like I've only scratched the surface. So far the books have only explored two continents, but who's to say there isn't more of the world to be discovered? And the Empire of Nar alone is made up of many different countries that have barely been touched on -- I could probably go on writing about these places for a long time. And hopefully I will, if readers want to see more books.

Although reviewers had been excited about your first book, the second, The Grand Design, seems to have generated even more enthusiasm. What do you think brought this about?
Well, I like to think it's because I've gotten a bit better as a writer. As I was writing the second book, I really felt that I was doing a better job. Things just flowed much more smoothly, and I had a lot more confidence. Perhaps that shows in the finished product, and that's what reviewers are seeing.

What line do you think delineates the two books for readers? Did you purposefully intend to outdo your earlier attempt?
I really don't try to outdo myself with each book. I'm not sure that's the best goal for a writer. Instead, I try to give each book my best effort and make it as good as I can. So far, most readers seem to like the second book better than the first one, but there has been a handful of people who have thought the opposite. The lesson seems to be that you can't please everyone, so you should write for yourself, primarily, and tell the story that you really want to tell. For me, that's the best way to keep up my interest and the quality of the books.

Also, each book is thematically different. Where The Jackal of Nar was largely about war and its effects on one person, The Grand Design is mostly about revenge and its destructive power. So even though there is a lot of cross-over between the two books, there are also significant differences. The same is true of the third book as well, which will be coming out some time next year. It's not really about war or revenge, but instead has its own distinct theme, as well as a number of new characters.

How do you explain the series' fascination with war? Where do you think the appeal to the average reader lies? How about your fascination with villains like Count Biagio?
The fascination with war is really my own. I've always enjoyed military history, and always knew that any fantasy novel I wrote would have military overtones. War is just such a large-scale occurrence, with all kinds of politicking and intrigue and opportunities to create interesting characters. It's kind of a natural theme for a fantasy series. War and fantasy just fit really well together. For better or worse, war just seems to interest people.

As for villains, that's been another one of my soft spots for years. They're just so much more fun than heroes, at least to me. In fact, if you look at the two books in the series so far, there really aren't any true heroes. There are anti-heroes, like Richius, but there's no one who is truly heroic in the classical sense of the word. Everyone has his flaws. But the flip side of this is that the villains have their good qualities. Even someone as nasty as Count Biagio has good qualities. His are buried and hard to reach, but he has them. And the best part is that readers have really responded to the villains of the books. Biagio, for instance, was never supposed to be the star of the series, yet he gets more fan mail than Richius by far!

You also list the Bible and Greek mythology as influences. In what ways have they layered what is happening in the Tyrants and Kings series?
Both the Bible and Greek mythology are filled with great stories, and that's where the influence really lies. When I was a kid, I used to love reading the Greek myths, and they've really stayed with me. Plus I liked the way that the gods of Olympus were very "human." They were far from perfect, so perhaps that's why I try to make my own heroes flawed and vulnerable. As for the Bible, it's a great and inspiring book, whether you take it literally or not. In the Tyrants and Kings novels, there's a whole sub-text about the Naren church, which is somewhat loosely based on Catholicism and the church of the Holy Roman Empire. So you can see where my own Catholic upbringing plays a part in my writing.

Full-time writing is quite a bold step. When did you decide to quit your day job and what gave you this confidence to do so? Has full-time writing actually increased your output?
Full-time writing was always my goal, but it was really only a dream until things started happening with the book overseas. I have a terrific foreign rights agent, and he was able to place the series with publishers in the U.K., Germany, and the Netherlands. That's really when I was able to say good-bye to the day job, because I knew I'd have enough income from all these sources to be able to support myself. Plus there's another important factor -- my wife. She works full time and brings in a good salary, and that's our safety net. I never really know when my money is going to arrive, but hers is steady and predictable, and that makes all the difference. I'm really very fortunate to have this situation.

And yes, writing full-time has increased my output tremendously. It's extremely difficult to work a full time job and also write, and there's a world off difference in my life now. I'm much less stressed-out. I usually don't write at night or on weekends any more, the way I used to while I was working a regular job, yet I'm still able to turn out a good amount of pages every day.

You've said elsewhere that the first novel took two and a half years to write. How long have each of the respective novels taken to write and what accounts for their differences?
Yes, the first novel did take about two and a half years to write, not including all the time it took to outline it and work out the story. But the second and third books went much quicker. I think The Grand Design took about a year to write, and the third book took slightly less time than that. As I mentioned earlier, I'm sure this is because the world of Nar became so familiar to me over the course of writing the books. Everything just came much more naturally by books two and three. Plus, once I got that first book under my belt, my confidence went up. I knew then that I really could write a book, so those nagging doubts weren't a problem anymore.

The level of engagement for your Tyrants and Kings series is unusually high. How do you manage to keep the plot and emotional pace at such intensity?
Keeping up the pace of the plot is always a challenge, because you don't want the reader to get bored. But the challenge was made a bit easier for me because I was writing about war in the first book, and that's a subject that has a built-in intensity. The same can probably be said about the emotional intensity of the books. War is obviously a difficult time with lots of emotional upheaval, so the characters were forced to experience these kinds of situations and deal with them.

Before I started writing The Jackal of Nar, I read a number of thrillers to see how different authors handled this type of writing, and how they create a feeling of tension. Good thriller writers are really masters at this, and it was great fun for me to adapt some of their techniques to my own scenes, like tightening up the action during a particularly tense moment or cutting quickly between different viewpoints. Hopefully it's been effective, and has kept readers involved.

What do you find that's so challenging in creating believable characters? Are there conscious choices you must make?
For me, creating characters is the best part of the process. And they don't always turn out the way I originally intended, which is also kind of interesting. I don't find that my characters have a mind of their own, or that they take the story in a completely different direction. That just hasn't happened to me. Maybe I'm just a real task master with them, but they pretty much do what I intend them to do. But their personalities change, probably because they have to "cope" with the situations I come up with for them. Some of these poor bastards are really put through the ringer!

As far as making choices regarding the characters, the hardest part is deciding which ones will be important to the plot, and which ones are just sort of "walk ons." This is tough because I like to give all the characters lot to do, but then the books would be tremendous. So I have to pick the best of them, or the ones that interest me the most, and hold back on the ones that aren't as important. The bright side of this is that I get to save them for future books. The character of Admiral Nicabar is a good example of this. In the first book he's not a major character at all, but by the second book he has much more to do, and by the third book he's a central figure. That's the beauty of working in a series. If there's no room for something in one book, then maybe you can do something with it in a future book.

What is the appeal of a multi-layered story over a more straight-forward tale? Why did you choose to complicate the second novel with the addition of other viewpoints and sub-plots?
Straight-forward tales are great, and I'd like to write one someday. But I wanted the Tyrants and Kings series to be fairly meaty and complex, with lots of characters and situations, so that's why I tried to do with each of the books. In The Grand Design, I wanted to get away from the Richius character somewhat and expand the world of Nar. There were a lot of things in the first book that were merely touched upon, like the Hundred Isles of Liss, so I wanted to explore these things in the second book. That required new characters and sub-plots.

Also, I like the way sub-plots can be wrapped up in a single book in a way that the overall story simply can't. This lets me give each book a feeling of standing on its own, without being dependent on the others in the series. Personally, I don't like getting to the end of a book and not feeling like it's over. I like to be rewarded for the time I put into reading.

Can you give us a teaser for the third novel in the series?
The third book is called The Saints of the Sword, and should be released by Bantam Spectra some time in Spring, 2001. The story opens about a year after the close of The Grand Design, and introduces some fresh characters, while still wrapping up the loose ends of the Richius Vantran story. Also, there's a bit more magic in the third book than there is in the second, and the race of people called the Triin feature much more prominently. I'm hoping that readers will find it all a satisfying conclusion to the Tyrants and Kings trilogy. But while it ties everything up nicely, it still leaves room for more books about Nar.

What projects are you working on now?
Right now I'm working on a brand new fantasy novel, one that isn't related to the Tyrants and Kings series. It's much less militaristic than the Nar books, more of a "classic" type of fantasy. I'm well into writing it, but don't know when it will be done because of the challenges of creating an entirely new world. I got kind of comfortable writing about Nar. But I'm having great fun with the new project.

Copyright © 2000 Trent Walters

Trent Walters co-edits Mythic Circle, is a 1999 graduate of Clarion West, is working on a book of interviews with science fiction writers.

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