Max Gladstone told the story of how he got his agent, Weronika Janczuk, on his website. We wanted to find out more about his novel, THREE PARTS DEAD, and his writing process, so we're thrilled he's granted us an interview!
The pitch that got him noticed:
"A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.
Three Parts Dead, Fantasy w/ Steam, 102,000 words"
Lindsay: How are you adjusting to joining the ranks of the agented after so much hard work revising and submitting queries?
Max: Not having to query agents any more is amazing. I learned so much great technical stuff from the years I spent querying - how to write a coherent pitch, a one-paragraph summary, a synopsis, how to format my manuscript, how to spend an entire week honing (and stressing over) a three-paragraph email without going too crazy, and so forth. Now the process is over, I feel like I’ve just removed a fifty pound pack after hiking for ten miles. I might as well be flying.
Michelle: How did you know Weronika was the agent for you?
Max: I’m one of those infuriating guys who, if you leave him alone in your living room for five minutes, will be full of questions about the books on your shelf when you return: “What did you think of X?” “I see you like Z - have you ever read W?” I also have strong opinions about books: if I encounter a person who hasn’t read, say, the Chronicles of Lymond, or The Hero and the Crown, or Lord of Light, or Hyperion, or Steinbeck’s Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, and likes those sorts of books in general, I will spend as much time as I am allowed singing their praises. I’ll send the poor unsuspecting victim fleeing my lair with an armful and a half of books.
Weronika has an excellent page on her website that lists the books she likes, why she likes them, and what she’s looking for in those genres. Browsing her site, I learned that we have very similar tastes - some of the books I’ve already mentioned, along with Dune, The Big Sleep, Bel Canto, and a bunch of others. I thought, well, I write the kind of books I like to read, and Weronika likes the same kind of books - wouldn’t it be awesome if she’d represent me?
Kelly: Is this the first novel you’ve written? What else have you written before this?
Max: Three Parts Dead is, depending on how you count, my fourth or fifth novel. In grade school and middle school I wrote a number of novellas, and when I was 17 I wrote a 200,000 mammoth story about the apocalypse, based on characters and a world some friends and I had created together. My first standalone novel, a murder mystery with a thriller edge to it, I wrote back in college, and I wrote three books while I was living in China from 2006 to 2008 - a madcap science fantasy sort of thing about some slacker gods trying to break into Hamlet’s castle at the center of the universe, a literary novel about expats in China with martial arts action thrown in for good measure, and another thriller about the quest for Genghis Khan’s tomb.
Michelle: What’s next for you? Revisions, submissions, new project?
Max: Yes, yes, yes, as Brad Pitt said in the trailer for Inglorious Basterds. I’m on the final revision stretch for Three Parts Dead with Weronika, after which we go on submission. Meanwhile, I’m overhauling sections of the novel I wrote after Three Parts Dead, set in the same world. After that’s done, I have an immense waiting list for new projects, which I might or might not consult before deciding to do something cool.
Katrina: Where did the idea of a dying god come from?
Max: Brace yourself, because I have an actual answer to this question. (oh, goody!)
I returned from China in August 2008, just in time to watch the financial world crumble. The universe stopped moving, and nobody understood why, except for a handful of experts who couldn’t come to a consensus as to how to stop it. Human beings were being crushed, destroyed, eviscerated by these immense, immaterial powers they could barely comprehend. I was job hunting at the time, and all around me I saw schools, companies, non-profits, governments, shrivel to husks for lack of cash. These entities that can build bridges, destroy countries on the other side of the world, summon people back from the edge of death, bring tomatoes from one side of the country to another before they spoil - they trembled, and many of them died. It wasn’t a great leap from the thought of organizations and governments as beings to the thought of them as something akin to a pantheon of gods: each one supported by a clergy, by sacrifices of labor and work, and by faith.
My girlfriend (who’s now my wife) was in her first year at Harvard Law School during the crisis, and many of her professors were called away to advise the government and shepherd companies through Chapter 11. If a company or a government is something like a god, then bankruptcy is something like death - which means that restructuring is akin to ripping the god open, rewiring bits and pieces Frankenstein style, sewing the whole thing together and hooking it up to the lightning generator. Lawyers, these professionals who get their power from massive red-leather-bound books replete with Latin terms and references to long-dead masters, and who take classes with names like “Remedies” and “Contracts” and “Secured Transactions,” began to look a lot like wizards to me. Once I had necromantic law firms staffed by wizards wearing pin-striped suits, the book started to write itself. Don’t get me wrong - Three Parts Dead isn’t a roman a clef, characters and situations have no one-to-one correspondences - but these ideas sparked the engine of the rest of the book.
Katrina: Did you know how it would end when you started writing, or was it a story that evolved as you wrote it?
Max: I began with a few scenes in mind, and once I’d written a few thousand words or so I retreated to spin out potential plotlines, endings, resolutions. Once in a while, as I wrote and edited, something would happen that I didn’t expect, but worked - or something that I thought would work, didn’t. Some major elements of the story I knew from the very beginning, and others happened as I moved along.
Kelly: Your book sounds like quite an epic. Did you plan for that length, or did the story grow and build? Do you have other books planned for this same world?
Max: I’m not sure about “epic” - 100,000 words plus a bit is pretty standard for fantasy. I did plan for that length after a fashion, not with blueprints (business meeting in the land of nightmares, 500 words, hospital interrogation scene, 1000 words, etc.), but the way you pace yourself for a run when you know you have a half-hour to complete a couple miles’ circuit. “Now I can take it easier, now I have to speed up, this is where I should use up all my excess energy, and here’s the cooldown.”
I have another book written in this world, and there’s a lot more that I could write, if people want to read it.
Katrina: If your agent Weronika were a god/goddess, which one would she be and why?
Max: It’s dangerous to compare people with gods that are actively worshipped, but in my life at the moment, Weronika’s playing the role of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles. Ganesha’s also the scribe to whom Sri Veda Vyasa dictated the Mahabaratha, so he’s a great friend to writers and poets.
Katrina: Who are your greatest literary influences? If you could meet one of them, who would it be and where would you set up the date?
Max: Roger Zelazny has been a consistent and long-standing influence. I love his work - I read Lord of Light fifteen or sixteen times from grade school to high school, discovering new layers of humor, drama, action, pathos, insight, and romance on each pass. To this day, whenever I visit a used book store (many of Zelazny’s books are sadly out of print) I head straight for the ‘Z’ section. I’ve amassed a large collection of his books, and am truly grateful to NESFA for publishing a six volume omnibus of his short fiction, poetry, and essays.
Other immense influences include Dorothy Dunnett, whose Chronicles of Lymond may be the Platonic form of historical fiction; Dan Simmons, whose Hyperion Cantos pushes space opera to its limits and beyond, and who introduced me to John Keats; John Crowley, who in addition to writing the amazing Little, Big, is a wonderful teacher and a kind friend; Robin McKinley, Frank Herbert, Terry Pratchett, and a handful of others. Recently, I’ve been reading more literary fiction, and John Steinbeck and Mikhail Bulgakov have joined the crew.
If I can wish for the impossible - I would have loved to meet Zelazny. As for what we’d do... He fenced, and so do I (though I’m very much out of practice) so maybe a quick bout or two, then coffee and conversation, followed by an evening of gaming - I learned a few years back that he played tabletop roleplaying games (you know, the Dungeons & Dragons/GURPS/Vampire: The Masquerade type games), and I would love to see the kind of madness he would come up with given a system like Spirit of the Century or Spycraft.
A big THANK YOU to Max for answering all our questions. We wish you all kinds of success!