An Interview with David B. Coe
by Edmund R. Schubert
David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the author of more than twenty novels and as many short stories. David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. He is currently working on several new projects.
As D.B. Jackson (http://www.DBJackson-Author.com), he is the author of The Islevale Cycle, a time travel/epic fantasy series from Angry Robot Books. The first two books, Time’s Children and Time’s Demon, are now available. A third book, Time’s Assassin is in production. He also writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston that combines elements of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction.
Under his own name (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) he has written the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle, the critically acclaimed Winds of the Forelands quintet and Blood of the Southlands trilogy, the Case Files of JustisFearsson, and Knightfall: The Infinite Deep, a tie-in with the History Channel’s Knightfall series. He is also co-author of the non-fiction book How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion.
His most recently published/forthcoming books are the novel, Time’s Demon (Angry Robot, May 28, 2019), and the anthology (as co-editor) Temporally Deactivated (Zombies Need Brains, June 30, 2019).
Edmund R. Schubert: I can’t help but notice that your last novel, your about to be released novel, and the anthology you recently edited all have time-travel as a major component. What’s up with that? Happy coincidence or insidious plot?
David B. Coe: I actually hadn’t thought of that until I read the question. Obviously, in writing about time travel I am working out some personal stuff. I think all writers engage in self-therapy with nearly everything we write. That said though, the anthology was a happy coincidence, a project that sort of fell into my lap while I was in the middle of working on this series. Joshua Palmatier and I had the same idea prompted by the same mis-phrased phishing email, and Temporally Deactivated was born.
The Islevale Cycle has a far different origin. Time’s Children (Angry Robot Books, Oct. 2018), the first volume, and the new book, Time’s Demon (May 2019) are definitely products of the nostalgic ruminations of a middle aged mind. I won’t go into self-analysis too deeply, because, really, no one wants that… But let me give you an example. The main conceit of my time travel magic system is this: When my time Walkers go back in time (and they can only go into the past and then return to their original present — they can’t explore the future) they spend their years as they Walk. So my lead character starts as a 15-year-old boy. He Walks back 14 years and arrives in the past in the body of a 29 year old. Of course, his thoughts and emotions remain those of a kid. If he were able to return to his real time, he would age another 14 years.
So there’s a lot going on here. Those of us who are of a certain age know that life is fleeting —years slip away so easily. There is an element of that in here. We old folks also know that while our bodies start to fail us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways as we age, we don’t really think of ourselves as being that different from the people we were when we were, say in college. When I was young, I thought that being in my 50s would be so weird, so different, so old. But actually I still feel like the same guy I’ve always been. Maybe a touch wiser (my wife and daughters would dispute this…) but largely the same.
And finally, when my lead character arrives in the past, an assassination plot against the sovereign he serves kills just about everyone in the royal court. The only survivors are my hero and the infant daughter of the sovereign. My character, this kid-in-a-man’s-body, becomes the de factoparent to this child. Now, when my wife and I had our first child, I remember feeling just that — this sense of being a kid in the body of an adult, taking on responsibilities for which I was not at all prepared. So that is a part of this tale, and my interest in time travel, as well.
Schubert: Your recent novels use magic as the mechanism for time travel, while the anthology seems to employ the more traditional science fiction/mechanical approach. Do you think about time travel stories differently when working with Fantasy vs SF?
Coe: Yes and no. There are a couple of key factors any author needs to keep in mind when playing with time travel. The most important is this: The ability to move through time can be a source of endless plot holes. Potentially, characters can go back and correct any event that doesn’t have the outcome they want. There are, if one isn’t careful, endless do-overs. And then there are the anachronisms, the paradoxes, etc. When does the arrival of someone from the future alter the course of history? When does one action render all that has come before it irrelevant? Whether we’re writing magical time travel, or time travel based in recognized theories of physics or mathematics, we have to beware of these issues. Sadly for me, I am not nearly smart enough to understand, much less write about, those aforementioned mathematical and scientific theories. So I have created a magical system, and I’ve built costs into it, along with difficulties and scarcities that render time travel exceedingly rare in my world. That is my way of mitigating the narrative complications. I think if I were writing a science-based time travel system, I would be bound by the science and would have to come up with some other approach to keeping time travel from taking over my story. I don’t know what that would be specifically, but the end result would need to be similar to that of my magical system: time travel has to be rare and costly, because otherwise it can create so many problems.
Schubert: The Temporally Deactivated anthology was your first foray into editing. As someone who already has decades of award-winning writing under your belt, did you learn anything new from the process of editing? Did editing this antho make you see or think about anything differently than you had before?
Coe: So, the short answer is yes, I learned a ton. I found editing to be similar in many ways to teaching, and in particular workshopping a student’s fiction. I find that reading the work of another writer critically— regardless of whether that writer is a student or an established professional or anyone in between — forces me to think about my own prose, my own character work, my own narrative structure. Self-editing is one of the most difficult things for a writer to do — at least it is to my mind —so when critiquing or editing, I have the opportunity not only to help a colleague improve her or his work, but also to discover in their writing some of the things I might be doing in my own that I would like to correct. Put another way, sometimes we’re so close to our own work that we can’t see our mistakes, and so we need to learn from the similar mistakes made by others.
Working on Temporally Deactivated in particular was also helpful in another way. Themed anthologies — collections of stories built around many authors’ interpretations of a single narrative prompt — are fascinating because of their very nature. Too often we authors worry about being “scooped” — having someone else write a story or book that is too similar to ours, as if there is only one viable approach to ANY story topic. Ha! Working on a themed anthology will disabuse an author of that notion in a hurry. It did for me. We received so many fascinating interpretations of what “temporally deactivated” might mean. It made me realize that there is no such thing as “the same idea.” We are, in the immortal words of Monty Python, all individuals. (Cue one guy saying, “I’m not…”) We all bring to our stories — even stories that grow from the same original thought — our own unique experiences, emotions, intellects, senses of humor, dark sides, etc.
Schubert: You mentioned something earlier about making sure there was a price to be paid for using time travel in your novel. How do you go about creating the rules of whatever world you’re creating. Do you have a process for ensuring you have a solid understanding of your world and its rules before you start writing a new series, or is it necessary during the editing process to clarify and clean somethings up.
Coe: Um, yes…. Sort of. I don’t want to have to do any world building once I’m editing. But I can’t always have all the information I need before I start writing. I try to have as clear an understanding of my world as possible before I type “Chapter 1.” Just as I do extensive research before writing a historical fantasy, I do intense world building before starting an epic fantasy. And I approach my preparation for each in similar ways. I start with a collection of questions — things I feel that I need to know and understand before I start to write. Invariably, that list of questions grows as I answer the first ones and figure out exactly what I DON’T yet know. But in time, the list narrows and eventually I get to the point where I have enough knowledge of my world to begin writing.
But, of course, as I write, I discover new things that I don’t know, and so I will almost always have to do more world building (or research) as the project goes along. And quite often once I have set up rules for a magic system, or a time travel system as the case may be, my next goal is to find new ways to stretch that system, often in the service of my villains. How can they twist the rules I’ve created, without breaking them, but with enough force to make life truly miserable for my heroes? So, yes, I have a solid understanding of my world and the rules before I start writing, and yes, I also have to clarify and clean things up as I go along. But always during the writing. As I say, once I’ve gotten to editing that first book, I should know this stuff cold.
Schubert: Thanks so much for your time answering my questions.
Coe: My pleasure.
Edmund R. Schubert is author of one novel, Dreaming Creek, and 50+ short stories. Select early short stories are collected in The Trouble with Eating Clouds; newer ones can be found in This Giant Leap. Schubert also edited and contributed to the non-fiction book, How to Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. After editing the online magazine InterGalactic Medicine Show (IGMS) for ten years (including publishing three IGMS anthologies and winning two WSFA Small Press Awards), Schubert resigned from editing in 2016 to make writing his primary focus. He is currently a graduate student at Converse College, working on his MFA.