I first met Howard Andrew Jones in a small writer’s critique group back on CompuServe some 15 years ago. Although we haven’t kept in close touch the past few years, I have always counted him a good friend. When Howard contacted me recently, I was not only delighted for the chance to catch up with him, but thrilled to learn that he had recently celebrated the release of his first novel, “The Desert of Souls,” featuring his popular characters Dabir and Asim. I remember reading these guys’ adventures in draft form. Getting to read them now, in their own novel-length story — in hardcover, no less! — with my friend’s name across the front is just validation of what I’ve already known from the beginning: Howard is a remarkable storyteller.
Besides knowing how to steal you away across exotic deserts and make you forget that you’ve got an episode of “Dancing with the Stars” in your Hulu queue, Howard has built an admirable and multidisciplined career as a writer, editor, and teacher…among many other things. Not only is he is the managing editor of Black Gate magazine, he is also the driving force behind the The Curved Saber, a website dedicated to the late great historical adventure pulp writer Harold Lamb. Howard is responsible for assembling and editing eight collections of Lamb’s work for the University of Nebraska Press. And as if that wasn’t enough, one month after the release of his first novel, he also released his first gaming novel, “Pathfinder Tales: Plague of Shadows,” set in the role-playing game of Pathfinder.
A few days ago, Howard and I met at the Russian Tea Room in New York City between premieres (read: we exchanged some emails), and I got a chance to ask him a few questions:
So I have here in my grubby little paws my very own copy of your debut novel, “The Desert of Souls.” This is particularly exciting to me not only because we’ve known each other since the days of CompuServe, but because the characters in this book are old friends to me.
Can you tell my readers a little bit about the evolution of your characters Asim and Dabir? How did you discover them? I know you started out writing short stories about these characters. Did you always mean for them to make their way into hardcover?
HAJ: I read a lot of historical fiction, especially that of Harold Lamb and Robert E. Howard, and one day Asim was just “there” ready to start narrating stories about the adventures he had with his friend Dabir. I found their names easily, and sat down to start drafting short stories about them. Hardcover – a man can dream, right? I wanted to write a novel about them for years, but kept putting it off. I didn’t honestly dream about hardback; dreaming about a book deal seemed incredible enough.
HAJ: I honestly think Beth Shope’s done a better job with a plot synopsis than I’ve ever managed. I’ll crib from her. But as for what drove me to write it, the book is an adventure about how Dabir and Asim come to forge their friendship.
MBS: I know you strive for historical accuracy. Can you tell us about this time period in which “The Desert of Souls” takes place and how that’s played into your voice or tone of the story?
HAJ: I think most of us are familiar with the impact of the Renaissance in Europe. 8th century Baghdad was undergoing something similar, though not a rebirth so much as a flowering. It was a true golden age of science and literature. Islam was but a few centuries old, and the ruler of the caliphate could trace his lineage back to a relative of the prophet himself. Religion was a constant concern. This era also was a time of strife and conflict. Two of the world’s great superpowers of the time were right next door to one another – the Abbasid caliphate and what we now call the Byzantine Empire – and border disputes and wars occurred with savage frequency. Many areas of the world just around the corner from these centers of civilization were terra incognita. Anything must have seemed possible. As reflective of a man serving the aristocracy, my narrator has a formal, dignified writing style, but he is a warrior of renown and a relatively simple man, willing to believe any number of strange stories, though he is seasoned enough not to be completely credulous.
MBS: Who do you consider to be the “star” of the series; Asim or Dabir? Do you have a favorite of the two?
HAJ: I don’t have a favorite. They’re a team, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. They have equal billing, and bring out the best in each other. Without each other to play off of I don’t think they’d be interesting for me to write about, or for others to read about.
MBS: How many novels had you written previous to “The Desert of the Souls”? What do you think you did differently, if anything, with “The Desert of the Souls,” to make it be the one that caught the attention and enthusiasm of an editor?
HAJ: I suppose it must be somewhere around 6 or 8; as for what I did differently, compared to the first few I just had to better learn how to write. Compared to more recent works, I still needed practice! I wish I could say that I had to find characters I was passionate about and a story I was dying to tell, but it’s not that simple, because I’d been trying to do that for ages. Maybe all the practice finally paid off, or perhaps I finally found my voice.
MBS: You’ve written some excellent essays regarding your journey to publication, “How to Get a Book Deal,” “Signing the Contract,” and “After the Book Deal.” In “Signing the Contract,” you talk about this cup-of-tea moment you have when you received an email from editor Pete Wolverton at Thomas Dunne Books, who had your manuscript under submission, asking you to give him a call. I especially loved that you shared this as this is the moment I think we all, as writers, work so hard for. What was going through your mind while you enjoyed that cup of tea? Did you know that this was it?
HAJ: I suspected it was the moment, but I didn’t know for certain. I can’t recall what was going through my mind other than slowly enjoying the tea. I was excited, certainly, and a little nervous. Doing something ordinary helped clear my head.
That came about through my Black Gate work. I’d known the editors at Paizo for several years because of the reviews I’d been doing of Paizo game products and because we had a similar love of old sword-and-sorcery and sword-and-planet adventure stories. Paizo editor James Sutter was readying to launch the Pathfinder line at about the same time word broke that I’d signed a book deal, and he asked if I’d be interested in writing a novel set in the Paizo game world. I was already a fan of Paizo material and somewhat familiar with the setting, so I was happy to submit some story ideas.
MBS: I would be remiss not to bring up Harold Lamb. In fact, it seems your name is always to be found in reference to Harold Lamb, and with good reason. For those of you who don’t know, Harold Lamb was a historical adventure writer who published short stories and novels between 1917 and the early 1960s. He was best known for his stories that appeared in Adventure Magazine through 1936. But if it weren’t for you, Harold Lamb surely would have faded away into obscurity.
You’ve put together eight collections of Harold Lamb’s fiction through University of Nebraska Press. How did you go from being an appreciative fan to compiling these collections of almost-lost adventure literature, an amazing labor of love?
HAJ: Purely by accident. Lamb’s stories were pretty far ahead of their time as to pacing, cinematic description, plot twists, compelling characters – they were grand adventure stories, and when I discovered dozens and dozens of them had never been reprinted, I tracked them down and learned most were just as good or better than the ones that I’d already read. It was criminal that such fine stories were in danger of being completely forgotten, and I really hoped something could be done about it. I just didn’t know I’d be involved! I’d never planned to become an editor, but I fell into the job when I couldn’t get a position in the radio-tv-film industry. After a few years I realized that I knew the “language of publishing” so that it was much simpler for me to approach publishing houses about reprinting the work – rare work that I was in possession of. I wasn’t alone, though – other Lamb fans had preserved the work from the rare old magazines, and when I had interested the University of Nebraska Press in collecting Lamb’s work, those fans stepped forward to help supply me with the texts.
MBS: You mentioned the other day that you just finished the sequel to “The Desert of Souls,” and I hear there’s going to be a flying carpet in the sequel. Are there any other tidbits you can give us regarding the sequel? What else can we look forward to from you in the future? And — this is me being fan girl — d0 you intend to publish any Kyrkenall stories?
HAJ: There will be forgotten lore, sinister wizardry, bone-chilling monsters and giant beasts, and romance is in the air for Asim. Kyrkenall – hah! I’m amazed you remember him from our writing group days. Of all the novels before “The Desert of Souls,” there’s one that I’ll probably revise heavily, and another that I’ll keep the characters and background from and start over, and that’s the one narrated by the impulsive, charming, and deadly Kyrkenall. I’d still love to launch a series featuring him.
MBS: I’d love to read a series featuring him. 🙂
Thanks so much for taking time for this interview, Howard. I’m really glad people are sitting up and taking notice of you and your work. The blurbs and reviews have been glowing…and deservedly so. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for you.
HAJ: Thank you for the questions and support, Ang. It’s been a real pleasure.