An interview with Josh Erikson

What are you currently reading Josh?

I’m about ten pages in to Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft. Pretty much everyone I know in the industry keeps gushing about this series, so I figured it was time to go ahead and fall in love with it already.

Your first novel, Hero Forged, is set mostly in Lincoln, Nebraska. That's not a common setting for urban fantasy. What inspired you to set it there?

I use “urban” a little loosely here, but I live in a town of 13,000 people, so anywhere with more than one McDonalds is a sprawling metropolis to me. I picked Lincoln in particular for two reasons:

First, I know the place. It’s near where I live, so I knew I could ensure plenty of verisimilitude in my setting. And if a few locals buy my book purely out of curiosity, that’s a bonus!

Second, I really like poking fun at the tropes and stereotypes in fantasy fiction. That’s at least 30% of my jokes. So setting an “urban” fantasy in Nebraska was really the first volley after the title itself.

Your books are known for witty dialog. Does creating that dialog come naturally for you right away or is it something that is crafted through the revision process?

It’s how I talk in real life. I grew up on Joss Whedon’s stuff, and I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by people who challenge me to keep up intellectually in conversations. So all that turned into a proclivity for snappy banter...often to gloss over the fact that I have no idea what I’m talking about. The other, more clinical reason is that I have a pretty hard time letting loose, so dry humor has always been my work-around to approximate being a fun person.

The main character in Hero Forged and Fate Lashed, Gabe, reminds me in some ways of Nate Ford in Leverage. What inspired Gabe's character, either from fiction or real life?

I love Leverage! And Nate Ford is an awesome example. But I also took a little influence from characters like Vash from the anime Trigun and Wash from Firefly. Then I added a healthy dose of the kind of self-doubt we all deal with. A self-deprecating conman just sounded fun to me. Gabe is pretty competent when he can be bothered to try, but all of his confidence is self-made and built on some shaky foundations. He has to be pushed hard to get anywhere near his potential, which is why he works so well with Heather... 

Who would run the better con, Gabe or Mat from the Wheel of Time?

That’s a tough one. I think Gabe does it more intuitively and works better one-on-one. He can  take one quick look at someone and figure out how to get through their defenses. But he’s also aware of his limitations—to a fault, really.

Mat is more of a gambler and trickster, using pure confidence and wits to convince people to do ridiculous stuff. And while he works well at a much bigger scale, he doesn’t always know when to stop.

So if we’re trying to con a college kid into adding the “supplemental hot-plate coverage” on some fictitious dorm room insurance, I’d pick Gabe. But if we’re trying to con the Dark One into believing we have an army of purple bedazzled steam mechs, Mat definitely has the edge. (I haven’t finished Wheel of Time yet, so I can only assume this is how it ends.)

For the various Umbra in your books you draw from a wide range of folklore and cultures. What has been the most difficult umbra/umbra type to research?

The super secret sauce to this series is that the Umbras readily evolve from their origins as two-dimensional archetypes. So when I do research, it’s just a starting point for developing the deeper characters they’ve become/are becoming. But, Aka Manah was definitely the most challenging to dig into. He comes from Zoroastrianism as a spirit of evil thought, but he’s used to cover a wide range of bad stuff that we might otherwise chalk up to the darker sides of human nature. And it’s not always clear who he is in that mythos as it’s changed through the centuries. It’s fascinating stuff, and as soon as I read about him I knew I wanted him as a part of this story. Little did I know how thoroughly he would worm his way in...

In terms of writing, what comes first for you: character(s), plot, or setting?

Characters first, last, and always. For me, the plot grows from the characters anyway, and the setting is just a pretty place for them to play. (Unless the setting is basically a character itself, which some books do really well.) I’ll outline a little at the start to make sure I don’t lose my threads, but ultimately these characters tell me how things go. Sometimes I’m just as surprised as you are at what happens. There’s even something at the end of Fate Lashed that I really didn’t want, but I just couldn’t force myself to see it happening any other way. The characters insisted.

Stephen King calls stories “found things”, like they already exist out there, and we’re just here to unearth and enjoy them. That’s how it is for me.

You narrate your own audio books--what do you like most about narrating your own, and are there any frustrations with doing so?

I LOVE narrating the audio for these books. I start voicing these characters from the first draft, so really all I’m doing is polishing that performance for everybody else. And I think my writing style tends to skew toward the audio format anyway. Sometimes a line or character doesn’t quite work for people on paper, and I don’t understand why. Then I compare the audio version and realize that I’d added some tiny trait in the voice that gave it more life. That’s harder for me to notice since I almost never read my own stuff silently. It’s a tough line to walk. But the reward is that I get to BECOME these characters for the awesome people listening. And that’s the coolest thing ever.

The down side is editing the audio. It’s a brutal fusion of technical expertise and artistic intuition that takes me almost as long as writing the first draft itself. Imagine inspecting every inch of a roll of toilet paper and meticulously tweezing out each imperfection...then rolling it back up flawlessly so nobody notices. Now do that for the whole pack. It’s like that...only in the classiest possible sense. Like, luxurious quilted four-ply.

What's one piece of advice you would give to folks looking to self-publish?

Do your best possible work. Not just when you want to be done or when you feel pretty good about it, but when it’s the best thing you’ve ever accomplished. Because you’re competing against traditionally published stuff whether you like it or not, and the goal should always be side-by-side judgement against those books. You CAN do it, even if it feels daunting at the start. Work hard, be flexible, be thorough. And learn to take yourself 100% seriously as an artist...while taking yourself 0% seriously as a person.

That being said...still have fun with it, you know?

Finally, how can readers find more about you and your work?

My website and/or newsletter is a good place to get updates if you just want the big stuff.

Facebook is better if you want more regular updates.

And Twitter if you want maximum content from me, but don’t care that it might also include pictures of my kids and scathing reviews of baked goods.