Author Interview with James L. Wolf

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The Artifact of Foex, the first novel of the Flame Cycle, that just came out. Tell us a bit about it; what it’s about, where it came from.

Cover for The Artifact of FoexIt’s a coming-of-age story that starts with an incredible find from an archaeology dig, namely, a three-hundred year old spy and a magical relic that works a little too well. The idea behind The Artifact of Foex came from my youthful, romanticized view of archaeology. Between Indiana Jones and a world-traveling archaeologist cousin of mine, I wanted so badly to try it, but in college I found out it was about pot shards. Lots and lots of pot shards. So my imagination took over, and I started fantasizing about what would happen if archaeologists found something really interesting in their dig—something alive.

What was the hardest part of this novel for you?

The drawn-out editorial process was, at times, dreary. But you know what? The time allowed this story, which had been written in a very short period, to mature like cheese. It also allowed for better continuity with the rest of the series.

When did you start writing, and what was your first story?

Imagination was my route to surviving childhood. I started writing around the fourth or fifth grade, when I realized no unicorn or immortal ghost would fly me away to somewhere better. My revelation at the time was, “Hey, at least I can write about it!”  I had all kinds of epic serials from a very young age, very much in a “Watership Down” kind of way. The first real piece that broke the fifty-page mark (that is, handwritten notebook pages) was a god-awful story full of cliches from the late eighties. Two smart-mouthed kids accidentally warped through some kind of portal into a fantasy world. It was terrible, and I knew it. I got to the part where the big plot twist turned out to be a dog whistle, then quit, disgusted with myself.

Do you have any favorite themes you keep revisiting in your work?

Sexual healing, coming of age, how the past interacts with the present, survival in highly punishing circumstances like slavery or genocide. Also, continuity over time and the sheer weight of history. I’m constantly amazed that we have such short memories, as a species. Sometimes I look up from writing and realize no one remembers events that are really quite recent, such as the American Civil War. Sheesh, people! It was only little more than a hundred and fifty years ago.

Which authors—other than yourself—would you recommend to your readers?

On the speculative-fiction end, I love Lois McMaster Bujold. So intelligent, and completely underrated. Neil Gaiman, of course, and Terry Pratchett. For mysteries, C.S. Harris. Graphic novels play a big role in my life: Jeff Smith of “Bone,” Wendy and Richard Pini of “ElfQuest,” the “Fables” series, etc. Also, this is going to sound strange coming from a guy who writes erotica, but young-adult lit authors like Tamara Pierce and Diana Winne Jones do–and did, respectively—incredible work.

Is there another FFP author you particularly enjoy?

Inherent Gifts logoDemoted series logoI’d love to give a shout out to Alicia Cameron, whose intense emotional relationships in the Demoted and Inherent Gifts series–with themes of institutional slavery and caring/punishment– are just stellar.

Cover for Cubicle CasanovaOh, and when I think about it, I can still taste a story by Jamie Freeman called Cubicle Casanova.  When I finished it, I couldn’t stop laughing, yet the first words out of my mouth were, “I hope that character gets cancer and dies!” It’s one of those rare pieces where you’re supposed to hate the character, like a good Jack Nickolson movie. I would have thrown it across the room, except I treat my computer better than that. Besides, I was laughing too hard to aim.

Who do you read for fun? How much have they influenced your writing?

Honestly, my fun books are nonfiction. I love cookbooks, how-to books, DIY, craft, books about houses and architecture. For example, “The Good Neighbor Cookbook” by Sara Quessenberry and Suzanne Schlosberg is fantastic. I rent in one of the worst areas in the USA to be a renter—there is no headspace in the San Francisco Bay Area—so it’s relaxing to read about building chicken coops and how to design gardens. I go to the library with what is essentially a big bucket and browse for about an hour, every two weeks or so. As for influencing my work… well. When you build a world from the ground up, it’s good to know about things about this world.

When and why did you decide to write erotica?

When I discovered how much fun it is, and how healing. I can’t say there was a blinding moment of clarity; for many years erotica just kept percolating out of me, like coffee or the type of compost gardeners call “black gold.” I tried to keep sex out of my art, but that didn’t work so well. I hated that moment where you have to draw the metaphorical curtain. All the interesting stuff was going on behind that curtain, damn it!

Do you find you can get to aspects of characters in erotica that you couldn’t get to with non-erotic fiction?

Very much so. I love a 360 degree view of my characters and stories, so any information I can explore is an intensely satisfying experience, as an artist. It thrills me to have a vast amount of detailed information about my characters. What’s their favorite drink? If they ran a restaurant, what type would it be? What kind of vehicle would they drive? It makes them come alive in my head. I can hear dialog for years before I’ll write a single word of a book. Sexuality is a huge part of who people are, and the intimacy of knowing bedroom preferences is intensely satisfying.

For example, my character Knife engages in spying activities and espionage. Everything about her screams “top.” What I didn’t know until recently, though, is she’s very shy when it comes to having sex as herself. Usually she’s in pursuit of a target, with a clear strategy and goals for sexual encounters. To succeed, she must engage in what is quite literally sex work; Knife has encountered just about every fetish ever thought of or dreamed. But when it’s just her and another person–or people–without an agenda, she prefers gentleness and a slow progression of sexual events. Her personal preferences are not at all kinky. And to me, that information is solid gold.

Are there particular preconceptions about erotic fiction you like challenging?

That it’s the lowest denominator, badly written and badly scanned. That we do it just for money. Now, there is a drop of truth in there, and not just for writers of erotica. The fantasy author Mercedes Lackey once wrote—in response to conspiracy theorists—that she’d stopped producing a particular book series because they hadn’t been selling, and if she was really part of a secret cartel, she’d be sipping fruity drinks at a resort surrounded by muscular young men. I love that image. Honestly, though, we don’t make much doing this.

The real question here is, what is art? What is high art, what is low art, and does the difference really matter? For myself, I’ve decided it doesn’t matter. Writing erotica is fun, relaxing, enjoyable, allows me to explore worlds I’ve never seen, and gives me a fabulous opportunity to connect with readers.

Do you have a favorite type of scene you enjoy writing?

I’ve discovered my all-time favorite scenes are where character relationships are explored in a psychodynamic sense, bouncing emotions off one another’s reactions. I find these scenes invigorating because sometimes the outcome can be different from my predictions. Listening to your characters takes a book in an entirely unexpected direction, sometimes.

There’s often a mix of camp and serious in your work. How do you keep the tone balanced without one overwhelming the other?

Um, balance? There’s such a thing as balance? No, but seriously… very, very seriously, dead puppies kind of seriously—wait, balance? *Clears throat* Right, then. Apart from writing to entertain an audience, I’m doing this for my own amusement and mental health. There was a point in my twenties when a phrase I’d written (“rancid mule curry”) made me burst into laughter when I thought of it, no matter what painful situation I was going through at the time. On the flip side, I love exploring the deep, fascinating tension of such themes as genocide, slavery, witch burnings, war, prejudice, and the like. I suppose the balance just sort of happens by itself… with the help of a dazzlingly good editor, of course.

Some authors prefer to plot everything out ahead of time, some like to start with a character or a situation and see where it leads them. Which kind of writer are you? Outline? Discovery? A little of both?

Cover for Chaining FlameIt took me a long time to learn how to finish anything. Seriously, I’m talking decades, here. I try not to start writing anything unless I know the ending first, so it’s outlines all the way, baby! But sometimes a story will surprise you. One of the Flame Cycle books, not yet published, went in that direction. I thought I knew where it was going, but the characters and situation led me to a better ending than anything I could have come up with on my own. So, yes, a little of both.

What’s your writing process like? Is there anything you do to prepare yourself to write, or to keep your focus when writing?

I think of a story until I can’t stand not writing anymore, then I’m on fire. The Artifact of Foex was originally written in the space of five weeks, and not much sleep happened during that time. I’ve discovered the real spark of writing comes after I’ve been feeling low. It’s the old artist’s trick of taking depression, anxiety, frustration, anger, and fear and turning it, compost-like, into art. Like a good sprinkling of rain, ideas just sprout up afterward.

Which of your stories was the hardest for you to write?

For many years I’ve been working on an unnamed novel in the Flame Cycle. It takes place at the moment when the Flame are enslaved, and their goddess, Pelin, is assaulted by her ex-husband. I wrote the book in college. I wrote the book all throughout my twenties. It taught me how to write, really.

When I went through an abusive relationship with a narcissist, the book was with me then, too. Hell, the day we broke up, I wrote the central-conflict chapter at 3am on a misty, oddly warm night in October, sitting on the porch. There’s a bit of description from that early-morning session that still sticks with me. “He had never taken no for an answer. It had made him rich, and it would make him a father, and he broke people beneath his colossal willpower.” Yep. Not a fun relationship!

You know, the book is still not ready. It’s been on my mind, recently. I have a solid outline now… if only life would slow down a little so I can pen this sucker. Again.

What do you do when staring at the screen fails to make words magically appear?

I don’t stare. I go live my life; words come whether I want them to or not. Writing is like an addiction, only it creates instead of destroys. One of the few human activities where sublimation is more helpful than not. In her lesser known follow up to “Fun Home,” Alison Bechdel deeply explores this psychological process process in the graphic novel, “Are You My Mother?” I’m with her on this one. Writers, like artists, take all the crappy parts of life, filter it through the unconscious, and make something beautiful on the other end.

Personally speaking, though, I find the absolutely best way to start a writing project is to think, “Ugh, I don’t have time for this now. I have so much to do…” That’s when the bug hits, and–no matter what’s going on in my life–I stop sleeping in order to write.

FlameCycle_LogoMEDTell us a bit about your Flame Cycle. What inspired it?

The original inspiration was lucid dream about a Sumerian-style orgy. I must have been in the eighth or ninth grade, just starting to realize my gender was not what everyone—including myself—assumed it was. It took me a long time to come out as transgender and gay, not to mention the transition process itself. My Flame characters kept me sane throughout the long, intensive ordeal.

When this was all in my head, I mostly focused on Doyen, who was, for a long time, just a cooler version of me. A doctor me. You know, it’s funny how these things work out—now Doyen is taking more of a backseat to other characters. Knife, for example, has surprised me in that respect. She’s really taken over!

Overall, the Flame Cycle spans a good chunk of the history of your world, seen mostly through the lives of the reincarnating Flame. How did you come to a work of that scope, and that way of connecting the stories?

I’ve always enjoyed dabbling with reincarnation as a story element. I wrote a blog post on the subject, which can be found (here.) As for history… you know, it’s only boring if you take out all the sexy, interesting bits. That’s what most schooling does—it removes the best parts of history and makes it a homogenous slurry, focusing on conquerors’ perspectives. I spent a good chunk of my twenties exploring things like the history of eunuchs and intersexed people. We—sexual and gender minorities—have always been here, a vital part of the world. We just get erased and forgotten, is all. I wanted to explore gender and sexuality in a way that couldn’t be marginalized, with characters who’d remember everything whether they’d want to or not.

Did you have a vision for what you wanted the Flame Cycle to look like? Were you originally going for a novel, a collection of short stories, a trilogy?

Oh, it’s always been a series. Long before I wrote it, it was an ongoing serial in my head, spanning from the stone age to a far-distant future. There are currently about four books and one novella in existence, and I’m working on a series of short stories before delving into the next novel.

Cover for Whisk TogetherMoving on to some of your other works, your novella Whisk Together is something that’s not common in the market: an interracial polyamorous romance, set in the world of professional television chefs. How did you end up with that mix of elements?

I love food. I cook, bake, watch celebrity chefs—that world just fascinates me. And as someone who has polyamorous, interracial relationships myself, I wanted to see a story out there that explored all these elements.

Whisk Together is your only realistic work with ForbiddenFiction; the rest are all some form of fantasy or science fiction. Is there something you find particularly attractive about genre fiction?

It’s just the way I thin—to twist, and twist, and twist the facts again. When I learn something interesting and new, I react like a magpie building a nest. As in, “Ooo, I can make that work for a story.” The funny thing is, these days I go in for more realistic reading material—like I mentioned, I like a lot of non-fiction. Maybe in a few years my brain will start generating nonfiction, too.

Did you do a lot of research into chefs and cooking shows for that novella? Any particular inspirations?

Mostly I had to do research into the production end of television, since my main character, Deanna, works behind-the-scenes for television. I was inspired by childhood memories of watching PBS cooking shows with my dad on Sunday mornings; you know, Jacques Pepin and “Yan Can Cook.” I wanted to mix this old school style with the sort of new cooks from “Chopped” and “Top Chef.”SacrifcesTE_JLW_CvrPDF

Your short story Sacrifices to Ecstasy might challenge some readers with its mix of religion and sex. What inspired you to blend those themes?

I’d be lying if I said the story came from a rational, conscious place in my psyche. Good lord, even I don’t know where that one came from. But it was fun to write⸺one of my early erotic stories that actually had an ending, let alone a positive ending.

What’s next? You have more Flame Cycle novels coming; do you have anything else in mind for ForbiddenFiction readers?

The Flame Cycle is pretty much taking all my spare time and energy right now. I don’t know how many books it will eventually become, but more are coming. The next novel takes place in a version of the early Victorian Era. Knife and her apprentice, Aureate, have to figure out how to survive the genocide known as the Watering Times. Flame are being executed in wooden water tanks during public rallies. Knife must manipulate her royal connections and let an old lover out of prison to play the survival game. It was fun to write, and I look forward to sharing it with you!

See more stories by James L. Wolf!
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The Artifact of Foex by James L. Wolf

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