Dan Levinson, author of Fires of ManA couple of months ago, a publisher sent me Fires of Man, the first book in a new series called Psionic Earth. The ARC file arrived out of the blue, with an email asking if I wanted to review it. It joined my TBR list until last month’s vacation, when I finally read it – and loved it. Indeed, it was one of the best books I’ve read in 2014!

I contacted the publisher to ask that they bring me in touch with the author, Dan Levinson, figuring that, if I was intrigued and wanted to find out more about the book and its author, so would other people as well.

We ended up chatting about games, the book and more, and exchanged a number of emails, compiled into the familiar interview format for your enjoyment. 🙂

The Usual

Hi Dan, it’s a pleasure to have you here. Fires of Man was one of the best books I’ve read this year, combining so many of my favorite themes and genres. What inspired you to write it?

It’s actually a story I’ve wanted to tell—and have tried to tell, over various iterations through the years—for quite a long time. I first conceptualized it more than fifteen years ago, and while, back then, it was inspired mainly by my adolescent obsessions, namely video games and anime, it’s evolved over time.

When I finally wrote Fires of Man in its current version, I was greatly intrigued by the interplay of these many characters, the politics of the world, and the consequences of war, both on a personal level, and on an international scale.

What was the first thing you ever wrote?

The Final Fantasy II Chronicles, a piece of fan fiction for what was then known in the west as Final Fantasy II (officially, IV). I couldn’t have been older than 10. I finished the game, and immediately thought: I don’t want this story to end!

Ah, Final Fantasy… I know it well, my friend! Writing fan fiction – at the tender age of ten, too! You were way ahead your time, weren’t you? What other writing have you done? Anything else published?

I’ve written a number of screenplays, which have placed in some contests, though nothing produced as of yet. Fires of Man is my first published novel, with book two to follow next year. I also have a YA fantasy novel, The Ace of Kings, which, after nearly two years of writing and rewriting, I hope to have finished within the week. I’ll then begin to shop that one around.

Any hobbies or interests that you enjoy in your spare time?

You may have guessed from my responses to the first two questions that I’m an avid gamer. I prefer games with deep, interesting narratives and complex characters. So while you won’t find me playing the next Call of Duty, you will find me glued to the screen the next time a narrative-driven game like The Last of Us releases. I also read a lot, and I’m a bit of a TV junkie. My favorite currently running shows are Game of Thrones and Hannibal.

How about Dragon’s Age or Baldur’s Gate?

I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate in a very long time, but I remember loving the wealth of content, the entertaining characters (space hamsters, anyone?), and the strategic gameplay. I was also fascinated with tabletop roleplaying when I was younger, so though I was never able to get a consistent group going, I recall enjoying the integration of Dungeons & Dragons rulesets which I’d read up on quite a bit.

Dragon Age and Elder Scrolls I find to be a bit of a mixed bag. Dragon Age: Origins, like much of BioWare’s work, was fantastic, in my opinion. I’m a completionist when it comes to RPGs, and I want there to be as much content as possible. DA:O fulfilled that, and also provided an excellent story with some nice, morally gray characters. Dragon Age II, however, was less compelling in both story and variety of content. I have high hopes for Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I agree on all counts. How about Elder Scrolls?

It’s undeniable that Bethesda makes great games, with lots of fun, humor, and a seemingly infinite number of things to do (I put more than 100 hours into Skyrim alone), but the series has always lacked a compelling storyline, I feel. There are some questlines that are more fun or interesting than others, but none that rise to truly epic heights (in my opinion). I also find it difficult to become fully immersed in the world, as one can walk into a town and find one villager that speaks with a Cockney British accent, and another that sounds like he’s from the midwestern United States. It was that lack of attention to detail I found kept me from being as impressed by Skyrim as many others, despite the fact that it was an incredibly enjoyable and addictive gaming experience. There was also the fact that I felt a vastly superior fantasy RPG was on the market that didn’t receive nearly as much attention: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.

The Witcher series is far and away my favorite modern fantasy RPG series, and I am champing at the bit to get my hands on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt this February. The Witcher eschews the common make-your-own-protagonist trope of western RPGs in favor of putting us in the shoes of a complex protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, the “White Wolf,” the eponymous “witcher” who is taken from the novels of Polish writer Andrezj Sapkowski. Geralt has a lengthy history, a strong personality, and I often think of him as the “Solid Snake” of fantasy, right down to his distinct gravelly voice. Not only does The Witcher series provide a level of meaningful choice far beyond either of the other series (to the extent that the second act of Witcher 2 has two entirely different versions, which are mutually exclusive, based on the player’s decisions), it also gives us a mature storyline, dark and gritty enough to be compared to George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.”

That said, in regards to Bethesda, I love their Fallout games, and I actually prefer Fallout 3 (and Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas) to Elder Scrolls. Similarly, overall I enjoyed BioWare’s Mass Effect series more than Dragon Age (though I didn’t care for the ME trilogy’s ending). 

I’ve finished the first Witcher, but stalled with the second one; not sure why. I also stopped playing Skyrim after a while, for exactly the reason you mention; lack of a compelling storyline. Also, a dragon kept getting stuck in the sky, which annoyed me to no end. And, of course, I took an arrow to the knee. Oblivion, however, was one of my favourite games. Anyway, let’s return to books: what are you working on at the moment? Tell us a little about your current projects.

I’m finishing up what I hope to be the final round of rewrites for my YA fantasy novel, The Ace of Kings, which, like Fires of Man, is the first in an intended series. It follows a fifteen-year-old blacksmith’s apprentice, Andie Davere, whose life is shattered when invaders from a far-off, crumbling desert empire attempt to kidnap her. In defending herself, she discovers that she is a conjurer—a summoner of magical armaments. From there, it’s up to her to unravel why these men are after her, and to find a new place in the world. Helping her is the title character, Sieg Cyrill, a legendary conjurer and mercenary known as the “Ace of Kings.” He serves as her guide and mentor through her journey.

The Ace of Kings has a Victorian era-inspired setting, replete with flintlock pistols and “skyships,” but it’s not steampunk.

I’m also working on rewrites for the sequel to Fires of Man, entitled Shadows Collide, and I have a couple of other projects on the back-burner. One is a dramatic mystery/thriller with paranormal elements, Shambles. The other, a dark fantasy series, is still in the planning stage, and will be the series I work on once the five book Psionic Earth series (of which Fires of Man is book one) is complete.

I, for one, am looking very much forward to reading the next Psionic Earth installment! It’s good to know there are so many more stories for you to share with us! Which are your favorite authors and what do you love about them? 

Stephen King, for his ability to craft rich, flawed, utterly compelling characters amid the trappings of a speculative fiction narrative.

The late Robert Jordan, for his skill at weaving together a sprawling, epic story with incredibly developed world-building and intricate magic systems.

George R.R. Martin, for his risk-taking, his complex politics and conflicts, and his grittiness.

And J.K. Rowling, for her talent at crafting iconic characters, and a unique, unforgettable world.

What genres do you read mostly and what are you reading now?

I mostly read fantasy and science fiction, as well as some horror and mystery/thrillers, although I’ve recently begun to delve more into literary fiction. I’m currently reading Philip Roth’s Everyman.

Are there any sites or writing tools that you find useful and wish to recommend?

I’d recommend my mentor Jake Krueger’s site, www.writeyourscreenplay.com. His approach to organic writing and character-driven narrative is applicable to fiction writing every bit as much as to writing screenplays. It wasn’t until I worked with him that I actually felt equipped to execute Fires of Man.

Tell us about your website/blog. What will readers find there? 

It’s the landing page for all things related to my writing. There are a number of articles on writing craft, as well as book reviews.

Of late, I’ve had little time to blog, so I’m in the process of hashing out a new approach to the site. Expect to see more activity there in a month or two.

What are the things in your life that you’re most grateful for?

My family, above all. Supportive, creative, always interesting, always loving. I’d never have made it this far without them.

I’m grateful for the mentors who have really guided my writing, helped me break through barriers in order to take it to the next level, namely: Jake Krueger, Linda Roberts, and Tom Jenks.

I’m also grateful for the wealth of ideas I have roaming around my brain. I never suffer from a dearth of concepts for my next book. I’ll be writing for many years to come.

Last, but certainly not least, I’m incredibly grateful to my publisher, Jolly Fish Press, for helping bring my dream to fruition. To Chris, Kirk, Reece, Marissa, to my fellow JFP authors, and to everyone else at Jolly Fish, thank you.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a prolific, inventive, talented storyteller, who brought a love of fiction to millions of fans around the world.

Oh, if Fires of Man is anything to go by, I’m sure you’ll be remembered as that and more! Now, for some more unusual questions.

The unusual

One of your character comes to a surprising death at the end of the book. How easy was it for you to kill them off? What inspired you to do so?

Hey now, spoiler alert!

In seriousness, it was always the plan, from the first word of that character’s first chapter. You’ll find it’s foreshadowed throughout the book if you read closely.

I felt a deep need to convey the consequences of war, of violence, of conflict. We can read of the number of casualties in the news, but that’s impersonal. Yet, for every one person that’s added to that count, there are grieving family and friends whom we remain disconnected from in our daily lives, but who are no less real. I wished to bring readers into that experience.

That said, I’d like for readers to be able to take what they will from it. I think literature is flexible and open to interpretation, and it’s up to the reader to take deeper, or even different meaning, from what’s on the page.

The women in Fires of Man seem to belong to a certain kind: tough exterior, messy interior. They often seem incapable of warmth and affection. Is this a post-feminism comment?

No, not at all, though you’re welcome to take it as such. It is, after all, your own honest response to the material, which I don’t wish to invalidate. I don’t think there’s a “right” or “wrong.” The author’s original intent shouldn’t keep the reader from having a different experience, in my opinion. There’s a wonderful quote from Orson Scott Card that I feel embodies this sentiment:

“The story is one that you and I will construct together in your memory. If the story means anything to you at all, then when you remember it afterward, think of it, not as something I created, but rather as something that we made together. ”

Now, more to the question at hand, I will say I think “incapable of warmth and affection” applies specifically to Kay Barrett, who’s had a very troubled past, which has resulted in deep-seated abandonment issues. Kay certainly fits the bill as to what you’re describing, though her journey will be to overcome these inner obstacles, and become a more honest, integrated person.

With Faith, conversely, we see a great deal of affection for the tribal chieftain at her dig site, for her family, her friends. She simply is who she is, I feel. Her type-A, driven, career-focused personality is not a front; it’s at the core of her sense of self. I tend to think of her as a much more authentic person, in that respect. What you see is what you get, with her.

Lastly, as to Sonja, her “tough” exterior is actually paper-thin. When I was younger, I suffered from intense social anxiety. However, many people who knew me tangentially, and observed me primarily from the outside, identified me as “aloof” because I tended to ignore the people around me. This was in truth because I was afraid to interact with those with whom I was unfamiliar, but it was interpreted by others in a completely different way. So while Sonja may “appear” tough to an observer, in contrast to Kay, who intentionally hardens her shell, Sonja actually feels painfully vulnerable most times.

I suspect most authors might be described as “aloof”, especially when younger, simply because we spend so much time lost in our head. Choose a male and/or a female character from your book and tell us about them. Who inspired their characters? Would you like to meet them? What would you tell them if you did?

Let’s focus on one of my favorites: Agent, AKA “John Black.” He’s an assassin for Calchis, one of the two warring nations at the center of Fires of Man. A powerful user of psionic powers, and an unrepentant sociopath, he is, I think, one of the most interesting characters in the story.

To an extent, when creating Agent, I thought of Dexter Morgan from Dexter, though more as a challenge to myself than an inspiration. Dexter is an utter psychopath, whom we root for, in part because of excellent characterization from author Jeff Lindsay in the books, and from actor Michael C. Hall in the television series. We also root for him because he only harms “bad people.” So I asked myself: Can I create a similarly dark character that readers will love, even identify with (to some extent), without a similar “redeeming feature”?

Based on the response to Agent thus far, I think I’ve pulled it off. There’s no denying he is a very bad man. He doesn’t have the same compulsion to kill that Dexter does, but he has no compunctions about it either, so long as it serves his mission. Agent is a murderer, kidnapper, villain through and through, and yet I think you can’t help but like him, because he’s so focused, so single-minded about his goals, and because his skewed view of the world is so distinct, and, in weird way, identifiable.

Would I like to meet him? No. I think I’d be very scared if I did.

Like him? I wouldn’t go that far! But he’s certainly one of the more engaging villains I’ve read, and adds a lot to the book’s unique beauty. I was sure he’s the one character you’d mention here. Why do you think we authors love our villains so much?

I think villains are an opportunity to think further outside of ourselves. I’m of the philosophy that every “villain” should consider him or herself the hero of their own story. It’s not difficult for us to understand why our protagonists want to be heroic or save the day, because we feel after a fashion that, were we in their shoes, we would act the same way. In a way, our protagonists are an extension of our own ideals.

Conversely, the antagonists we create are a chance to explore different points of view, ones that may be at odds with our personal moral or existential philosophies, but which must be no less authentic on the page. Therefore, we are given an opportunity to immerse ourselves in a psyche with a set of standards entirely its own, to embrace a darker point of view and find the humanity in it. It’s an interesting and generally enjoyable departure, even more so because the villains are often the ones who provide the inciting incidents for the story itself. Without our villains, there would be no story in the first place, because the heroes would never face a call to action.

Besides, who doesn’t enjoy writing a good “maniacal laugh” moment? 😉

From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Everyone, it seems. Now, if you had to describe a theme or thread running through your life, what would it be? What’s your life theme?

Overcoming inner obstacles. As a child I was bullied, I was overweight, I suffered from chronic migraines and stomach aches. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to constantly challenge myself, challenge my own preconceptions about who I am and what I’m capable of, in order to achieve my goals. I’ve dealt with heartbreak, health problems, and more, but I’ve come to recognize that when I face these challenges, I always come out stronger.

Nice! Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Where are you from?

I’m from the school of thinking, “man, I’m glad I read that book, because I learned a lot.” It actually helped a great deal with crafting female characters.

That’s a new one! Okay, is it true you’ve been abducted by aliens?

They said I’m not supposed to tell anyone!

I know, I was there. Name your claim to fame.

Being a dashingly handsome and talented writer, I suppose. 😉

I’ll take it. What is the weirdest thing that’s happened to you?

There’s no one thing that sits above all others, though I have had a number of strange synchronicities in my life. For example, I once queried a literary agent, only to discover she had lived across the street from me for most of both our lives.

That’s amazing! Did you get the job? 

I didn’t! It was a submission for the first book I ever wrote, which was an urban fantasy novel that very much knocked off Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, that now sits in a drawer in need of heavy rewrites. At some point I’d like to revisit that character and that world, and revamp it with a bit more of a wizardly Indiana Jones vibe.

I’m actually still looking for an agent, as I forged my deal for the Psionic Earth series without one, negotiating my contract with an entertainment lawyer instead. I’m aiming for The Ace of Kings to finally secure me representation.

Having read and loved your book, I find it crazy that you haven’t found representation for it yet. Oh well, their loss. Now, a big one: which one do you prefer; elephants or giraffes? 

Elephants.

That’s it? No reason? I can hear giraffes crying all the way from Africa… If you had to live over again what would you change in your life?

Not a thing. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but all of them have helped mold me into who I am today.

A brave man. Where in the universe would you live if you could travel anywhere? 

Right here in New York City. Home sweet home.

I thought “sweet home” was Chicago. My bad, I guess. 🙂 

Dan, it’s been great having you on my blog. Thank you for the interview and for writing a brilliant book! I’m looking forward to more of your stories.

Author bio

Dan Levinson is a Long Island-based fiction writer, screenwriter, and librettist. He grew up immersing himself in fantastical worlds, and now creates them. He graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of Arts in 2007.

What is Fires of Man about?

Fires of Man, by Dan LevinsonIn a world where a gifted few can manipulate reality with their minds, two great nations—Calchis and Orion—employ these psionic powers in a covert war for global superiority.

In the heart of Calchis, a powerful young psion named Aaron Waverly is kidnapped, and forcibly conscripted. To the north, in the capital, a plan is hatched to decimate Orion, to be carried out by the ruthless operative known only as “Agent.”

In Orion, fresh recruit Stockton Finn comes to terms with his new powers, and learns firsthand just how dangerous they can be. Meanwhile, officers Nyne Allen and Kay Barrett navigate the aftermath of their shattered love affair, oblivious to the fact that Calchis draws ever closer to destroying the tenuous peace.

Finally, in the arctic land of Zenith, Calchan archaeologist Faith Santia unearths a millennia-old ruin. This lost temple might hold the hidden history of psionic powers, as well as hints of a deeper mystery that could shake the foundations of all mankind.

I have to buy this!

Good. I highly recommend it, but be warned; it’s addictive. Here are the buy links:

I have to contact Dan!

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