Have you ever wondered how authors make historical fiction “work”? Or better, how do fusions of fiction and fact come together? From works like Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell to Dan Brown’s re-envisioning of the past, books offer us a taste not just of what “was” but what “might have been.” One of my favorite genres, steampunk, does the same. It plays with our sense of reality. But the authors of such works walk a careful line. At last year’s World Fantasy Conference, I listened in on a panel of historical fiction authors as they discussed their ethical duty to the past. Today, I am happy to feature one of those panelists: David Coe, or D.B. Jackson, author of the Thieftaker series. Taking place in Revolutionary Boston, the story mixes fact and the fantastic for a magical realism circa 1776. Thank you, David, for answering our burning questions!
- The Thieftaker series combines fantasy with historical fiction. What inspired you–and more specifically, is there anything about the Revolutionary period in America that lends itself to magic-making?
I was originally inspired to write the Thieftaker Chronicles by something I read about the rise of thieftakers, private investigators operating in the absence of established police forces, who recovered stolen goods for a fee. In particular, I read about Jonathan Wild, a corrupt, ruthless thieftaker who operated in London in the early 18th century, and who was responsible for most of the thefts he “investigated.” Upon reading this, I knew that I wanted to write about thieftakers. My idea was to create a character based on Wild who would be the nemesis for my honest, magic-wielding, thieftaking hero. That character became Sephira Pryce, the lovely, dangerous nemesis for Ethan Kaille.
I chose to set the books in 1760s Boston because the city lacked an effective police force, and so could well have been someplace where thieftakers might flourish (though there is no historical evidence to suggest they actually did). It was also the center of pre-Revolutionary political unrest in North America, and I thought it would be a rich source of story ideas. And, to get to your second question, Boston, and the Province of Massachusetts Bay in general, saw “witch” trials and scares throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Given the history of witchcraft in the region, it seemed the perfect setting for a magical story.
- The magic in Thieftaker is much more than wand-waving; it’s physical, bloody, even sacrificial. Could you briefly describe the methods to the unfamiliar reader? What about this kind of magic made it right for the story world?
There are actually several “parts” to my magic system. First, every conjurer, including Ethan, has a spectral guide who appears whenever a conjurer casts a spell. These ghosts grant the conjurer access to magical power, which dwells at the boundary between the living world, and the realm of the dead. Second, every spell must include an incantation, spoken in Latin, which shapes that power and gives it purpose. And finally, every spell has to be fueled by some sort of offering. For the weakest spells — illusion spells mostly — a conjurer might use water or fire as a source. Stronger spells — those that shape matter in some way, like healing spells, or conjurings that can shatter glass or rend wood — require a more substantive offering, taken from some living thing. A conjurer might use grass, or leaves from a tree. Most often they use blood, because it’s readily available, and because it is the most powerful living source. The strongest spells require the taking of a life — human or some other animate creature. These conjurings are dark, even evil, and most conjurers stay away from them.
I created this complicated magic system with the intention of making it blend with my world. As I mentioned a moment ago, my books are set in a time and place in which people still feared witchcraft. Spells require that my conjurers commune with spirits, speak in tongues, use blood sacrifice. All of these appear in contemporary accounts of what witchcraft looked like, and so all contribute to the conflation of conjuring with “witchery.” Thus, in addition to all the other trials and tribulations I throw at my hero, he also lives in constant fear of being hanged or burned for witchcraft.
- You create a very real fear in the audience that this time the protagonist(s) might not actually make it out OK. How do you balance the thrill of an adventure tale, the centrality of all of the characters, and the suspense of the action sequences?
Thank you. That’s kind of you to say. I want my audience to fear for my characters, so I’m glad to hear that you were worried! I’m a big believer in the power of point of view. I believe that the narration of a point of view character is, in many ways, the most powerful tool a writer has at her or his disposal. When POV is handled well, the intellect, senses, and emotions of the protagonist inform everything the reader experiences. Put another way, Ethan’s fear, anger, love, hate, frustration, confusion, etc. insinuate themselves into your emotions.
On one level, of course, my readers know (or at least think they know) that everything will turn out all right in the end. They don’t believe that I’m going to kill off Ethan, and they probably assume that those closest to him are safe as well. But they’re subject to the power of Ethan’s emotions, and ETHAN doesn’t know any of those things for certain. He thinks he could be killed at any moment. He fears for the safety of Kannice and Janna, Diver and Henry. It’s his emotions and uncertainty that bring suspense to my action scenes. I do everything I can to make his reactions as real and visceral for my readers as possible. I like to say that point of view is the nexus of character and plot. It’s the place where character and adventure meet to create suspense.
- Some of the characters which intrigued me most were the less central ones, like his fellow conjurers. Can you tell us a little about how you go about creating these characters who are only briefly shown, but still have strong and interesting personalities?
On one level, this comes down to doing my homework. The characters to whom you refer may be minor, but I still want them to have depth and dimension. So I take time to give them a history, to create a personality to go with the name and face. I don’t spend as much time on them as I do on Ethan, Sephira, and Kannice, but I spend more time than one might think. My readers may not ever learn all that I know about them, but the weight of their backgrounds is conveyed in the narrative, and makes them seem real.
And again, point of view plays a role in this. To Ethan, all of these people are living breathing people. So his response to them, his observations, the rapport he shares with them, all combine to make them seem more believable to my readers.
- I was very surprised (as a first-time Thieftaker reader) to realize that Kaille was not strongly on the side of the Revolution. What made you decide to pull back from the perhaps more expected approach of backing the Revolution from the beginning and make Kaille so mistrustful of the men we now know as the nation’s forefathers?
I spent a good deal of time developing Ethan’s character, filling in his background, coming up with a detailed personal history. He’s an ex-convict, a former navy sailor, the son of a naval officer. He’s also somewhat older than most fantasy heroes — in his mid-forties by the time of the action in DEAD MAN’s REACH — and so is more set in his ways than the younger men who tended to gravitate to the Sons of Liberty. It probably sounds odd, but given everything I knew about him by the time I’d completed this process, I couldn’t make him anything but a loyalist. You’re right: Making him a patriot would have been more expected, and also more convenient. But he essentially told me he was a loyalist, and I had to respect that. I’ll also admit that it makes him a more interesting character, and his political conversion, which takes place over the span of these four books, complements the emotional elements of his character arc.
- Rumor has it this is the last novel in this series–how do you, as an author, know when a story-arc has arrived at its finale? Will there ever be more?
I hope there will be more Thieftaker novels. I have ideas for more. We have to see how this last book does commercially. Frankly, after writing four Thieftaker books in four years, I’m ready for a break. I’ll come back to Ethan and his adventures eventually, but for now I have other projects in mind.
And I think that answers your question to some extent. I knew while writing DEAD MAN’S REACH that I was ready to move on to something else. I love the book — I think it might be the best I’ve ever written. But I also could tell that if I’d had to write another Thieftaker novel right away, it would have felt stale, to me and to my readers. I trust that instinct, and I looked for ways to tie up some of the plot threads that run through the series, to give my readers and my characters some sense of closure. There is room still for more mysteries, more thrills, but there is also a feeling of resolution.
David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of eighteen fantasy novels. Under the name D.B. Jackson, he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and, the newest volume, Dead Man’s Reach, was released on July 21. Under his own name, he writes The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books. The first volume, Spell Blind, debuted in January 2015. The newest book in the series, His Father’s Eyes, came out on August 4. He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.