Good morning from a chilly Eastern England.
Today, I have the honour of interviewing author, Justin Lee Anderson.
I recently read Justin’s new novel, The Lost War, a fantasy tale with magic, murder, and mayhem combined.
While I’ll soon be posting my review, to discuss the parts of the book I loved most,
today I’m asking Justin about his work and his influences as a writer.
With all that said, let’s dive into the interview.
1. When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
I’m not sure, really. The first thing I remember writing with the intent of trying to get it published was a graphic novel script that I worked on with my friend Martin when I was in university. We had played a LARP game of Vampire the Masquerade and he had been working on turning his character into a story. I suggested we work on it together and submit it to DC – Martin is a great artist, so he drew some sample pages for it. We sent it in and literally never heard anything of it again!
After my degree, I started writing a really pretentious post-modern thing with a self-aware main character telling short stories. It was different! But I ran out of steam with that – probably for the best. I started writing Carpet Diem sometime in my 20s, but then I got distracted by trying to get into screenwriting, so it languished unfinished for years before I finally came back and finished it.
I guess the short answer must be at university, when I decided I wanted to write that comic script. It just took a while to get there!
2. When did the idea for The Lost War first come to you?
The Lost War was three separate ideas that coalesced into one. Firstly, I wanted to write a story for these characters that friends and I had been roleplaying for years. Secondly, I had an idea for a story that was intended as a sort of satire/commentary on the state of the world. And thirdly, I liked the idea of creating a pseudo-medieval kingdom based on Edinburgh’s history and mythology. When I realised it all fit together, that’s when I was able to really get started with it.
3. What’s your favourite genre to read?
Definitely fantasy, but not just traditional stuff. I like urban, contemporary fantasy and speculative stuff like Jasper Fforde, too. I also read crime, like Jo Nesbo, and historical mysteries, like Imogen Robertson. But my huge TBR pile is almost completely fantasy.
4. Do you often struggle with writer’s block?
Yes. It can take me a while to get into writing a new book after finishing another one. In fact, I had intended to be working on I Don’t Like Mundanes, the sequel to Carpet Diem, while The Lost War was at the editor, but I just couldn’t get my head out of The Lost War and into a place to write comedy. It was incredibly frustrating. But I’m getting properly back into Mundanes now, and it’s starting to flow. There will be good days and bad days – I just have to remember not to beat myself up too much for the bad days.
5. What message are you most trying to convey in this book?
I’m not sure there is one core message. First and foremost, I hope to tell a good story. Beyond that, I guess my passions for things like tolerance and equality are just woven into the fabric of anything I write, but I don’t know that I’d call them a ‘message’. I hope I’ve written a book that is infused with my aspirational values, I suppose.
6. Why did you choose the history and mythology
of Edinburgh for your story to revolve around?
What draws you to this place?
Edinburgh has always been home, even when it wasn’t. I grew up in the US, and we always used to come back here for holidays. When we did, Edinburgh seemed magical to me. It was like stepping back in time. There’s a medieval castle and an extinct volcano in the middle of the city! There are buildings older than the United States! I loved it.
We moved around a lot when I was young, so nowhere really felt like home for long. When we settled back here in my teens, I really grasped that feeling of belonging somewhere. Twice I’ve moved away, to Dundee and France, and both times I’ve felt the constant pull of home. Edinburgh has the feel of a modern cosmopolitan city, but at the same time it’s dripping with history and quite compact. It feels both exciting and safe, and I think that’s why I love it.
7. Are you friends with other authors?
If so, how do they help you to become a better writer?
I am! Ramy Vance is a good mate who also lives here in Edinburgh. We chat about writing and marketing now and again – over beer when we can! He’s some kind of machine, with the amount of work he produces and the work he puts into marketing. I think he must have some kind of cloning technology.
Heide Goody, Iain Grant and Rachel McLean have become good friends in the last few years, along with a few others I mostly know online, like John Bowen (master of Facebook ads) and Joel Hames (and many others!). We’ll often have a little Facebook messenger chat going on if anyone has a question or wants to talk something through, or we might beta read each other sometimes. I’ve sort of gotten to know Anna Stephens this year too, and she very kindly read an advance copy of The Lost War for me. It’s a very supportive community – everyone seems genuinely out to help everyone else.
8. If you could tell your younger writing self
anything, what would it be?
There is no glass ceiling. Now more than ever, it is possible to write and be published, one way or another. I wish I had had more belief in myself earlier. I wish I had finished Carpet Diem sooner. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time.
9. Who is your favourite character from The Lost War?
Hmm. Touch choice! It’s like picking one of my kids. Maybe Samily? She’s fun to write. Aranok comes easily – he’s almost like writing myself, but Samily is unique. She’s an absolute badass but completely without ego. I don’t know how I came up with her, but I like her a lot. If I was going into a fight I’d want her beside me. But I also really like Meristan for different reasons. Allandria, Nirea, Glorbad – they all have their quirks and reasons I like them. I like Allandria and Aranok’s relationship, too. Nope, can’t pick one!
10. How do you feel about censorship, with regards to books?
That’s an interesting question, because it actually comes up in The Lost War. I am, in general, against the idea of censorship, except to protect young children from things that could be distressing or damaging to them. I do, however, worry about the dissemination of works that abuse the right of free speech to advocate for the restriction or removal of rights from other people. In The Lost War, they have a ‘poison cabinet’ (named after the German giftschrank – there’s a really interesting ‘99% Invisible’ podcast about it), where they keep restricted books. Aranok and Conifax have a debate about whether it’s right to restrict access to ideas, and I think it’s a nuanced subject.
Do we want a book eloquently arguing that some races are inferior, or that women should be kept as property? Do we allow a book that uses lies to underpin an argument to be published unchallenged? Conversely, who has the right to restrict those books? It’s a complex argument, because people are fallible and flawed. We form opinions based as much on emotion as information, and we’re capable, as we’ve seen often in human history, of sleepwalking into disasters. I think we have to be careful what we allow to be disseminated unchallenged, I suppose.
11. How many hours a day do you write?
Do you have a particular writing routine?
It’s all over the place, really, depending on what else needs to be done. At the moment I spend the mornings working on marketing The Lost War and the afternoons writing. I hope to get to a place soon where I can spend all of it writing and the book will tick over on its own without too much active attention from me. Fingers crossed!
12. How do you select the names of your characters?
I tend to try to make them random. Some have meaning to them. There are a few characters in The Lost War whose names are at least slightly relevant to their stories, but I can’t tell you who, because it would be spoilers! For the rest, I try to come up with something that sounds plausible as a name but also scans well. We’re conditioned to see certain types of names as heroic and ominous in fiction, I think, so I prefer to keep it more random if I can.
What is a little interesting is that in The Lost War, I found myself always giving female characters names ending in vowels, and men names ending in consonants. I didn’t realize I’d done that until far into the book, so I made it part of the culture of Eidyn, then promptly ridiculed myself by pointing out what a stupid tradition it is. Then I realised in the final edit that I had one male whose name broke that rule right at the beginning! That was a hasty edit.
13. What’s your favourite thing about writing?
Getting to make up my own worlds and my own characters and then play with them in my head! It’s basically a big game of make believe, I suppose, isn’t it? I try to write the kind of books I would want to read, which makes it enjoyable for me. Plus, it’s more fun than any other job I’ve ever had!
14. How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Too long. I write more slowly than I would like to. Carpet Diem took more than a decade, for various reasons. The Lost War was about a year, from beginning to published. I’d like to be able to do two books a year, and that’s what I’m aiming for.
15. What would you say to aspiring writers, who feel
pressured into giving up their passion?
Never give up! If you love writing, even just write for the love of it. If you don’t think what you’ve written is ‘good enough’, write more. You get better the more you write. Get advice from people you trust. Listen to it. If you can, get an editor, and listen to them. But above all, don’t believe you can’t do it. You can.
16. If you could only ever read one book, repeatedly,
which book would you choose?
I don’t tend to re-read books, because I find that when I know what’s going to happen I enjoy them less. It would have to be something lengthy, so at least I would have a lot to read. Looking at my bookcase, I’m tempted to pick Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Short Stories for that reason. But what’s actually drawing me to read it again, if I’m honest, is American Gods. I’ll just have to leave long enough between reads to forget some of the details!
And so concludes today’s author interview.
A huge thank you to Justin lee Anderson for taking the time to answer my questions here at Bookish Beyond.
If you’d like to find out more about Justin,
please consider checking out his website.
Please also consider checking out The Lost War,
for a real treat of a read