Black Blade Blues, the first book in a new urban fantasy trilogy from Tor debuts this month from first-time novelist J. A. Pitts. To his friends, family, co-workers and this interviewer, he is John Pitts.
Sarah Beauhall is a tough-as-nails blacksmith, movie props manager and medieval reenactor in Seattle, WA. When the lead actor in the low-budget movie breaks her one-of-a-kind sword, one of the extras, who claims to be a dwarf with skill at the forge, offers to help her repair it. Sarah then finds herself caught up in a strange sequence of events leading her to suspect her sword has magical properties and that the people around her are not what they seem. “It’s got dragons and dwarves, ancient gods and magic swords. Also, lots and lots of coffee,” Pitts said.
I caught up with my friend, John, in February at Radcon, a science fiction and fantasy convention held in Pasco, Wash. In the emails that followed, we talked about the debut of his first novel.
JW: Let’s just jump right in with the obvious question. What inspired you to write from the perspective of a twenty-something lesbian woman?
JP: This started as a short story (which I sold). When I sat down to write the short, I was writing for a themed anthology, Swordplay, edited by Denise Little (DAW, 2009). The theme was magic swords. I thought about it, did some research and thought that most of the swords that were obvious, like Excalibur, would be snatched up, so I went with Gram. Not as popular these days, I think. Anyway, as I was considering what the story would be, it dawned on me that the blacksmith is never the hero. That’s why the blacksmith. Second thing I thought of was how many women do you read about who are blacksmiths. That was a second difference I thought would make the story unique. The part of her being a lesbian came at the end of the first draft. When I had Katie show up, it just fell into place. I have family and friends who are lesbians, and I thought it time for a strong female character with a different sexual orientation than most readers are used to seeing.
I want to entertain, first and foremost. But this just felt right. Once I had Sarah firmly in my head, it was obvious who she was. Now, if she could just come to grips with the way the world is, she’d be happier. I’m thinking it’s gonna take her a long time figuring it all out... books and books.
JW: Did you or do you have any fears or nervousness about writing “the other”?
JP: Of course, but only in hindsight. Once Tor offered a three book contract, I started considering how I was going to be perceived in the media and the genre specifically. I did discuss the possibility of being trashed on the web, or lambasted for daring to step outside not only my age and gender, but to tackle a lifestyle that I’m not an active member of. I have had some very strong women in my life. Influential, compassionate, loving, brave women, some of whom happen to love other women. I just am glad to be a part of their lives.
JW: Are there social issues you are trying to address in your book?
JP: Acceptance and tolerance both come to mind, but I didn’t set out with an agenda. The story addresses subjects I’ve considered and studied for years. When I was in college, some of my best friends were lesbians. One of the brassier gals considered me her “spokesmodel for hetero-married-guys” (her words). Someone who was safe, but had an insight into the rest of the world that she lacked. I miss her a lot. She was a kick.
JW: What kind of research went into creating this character, and what kinds of challenges did you encounter?
JP: Research has been all through my life. I have family members who are lesbians, friends, co-workers. I’ve been getting schooled on white male privilege for a long time by some very savvy women. But not just women—friends of color, gay friends, folks of other cultures and religions. I’ve been blessed by the number of wonderful people I’ve had in my life.
In college I studied folklore from many world cultures. And I’ve read tons and tons of different authors. Basically I spend my life studying and learning.
Doesn’t hurt that I was raised by a single mother who took no prisoners, and learned to love science fiction from my great aunt who came straight out of the sticks. Good, hardworking people, honest, not afraid to let you know what’s on their mind.
That’s the best part of Sarah, I think. A mix of the men and women in my life who were not afraid to step up and do what needs to be done, even if it takes some personal sacrifice.
JW: When you were researching blacksmithing and reenacting, what was the most interesting thing you learned about either or both crafts?
JP: I read some blogs and journals on reenactors and spoke with people in the movie business. The thing I love about reenactors is their tenacity and drive to make things as authentic as possible. They are crazy, but in a good way, you know. Dedicated and absorbed in their chosen field, but willing to have fun at the same time. Real inspiration.
Blacksmithing is a whole other thing. I read books on blacksmithing and visited a blacksmith to ask questions. I love the way we came to learn this art. It took generations upon generations to figure out the nuances of turning bits of the earth into amazing creations. I learned that most smiths have a distinct sense of history, and can tell you tons about their favorite anvil or hammer, including all the previous owners, and where it was made.
And the attention to detail. I’m fascinated in the rhythm and zen of the art. Watching someone turn a hunk of scrap metal into a beautiful and utilitarian object is a real kick. You know, as a culture, arts and crafts used to be aligned. It’s only in recent times we have separated the two.
If you have an opportunity to see old iron work, look for the artistic details. You’ll be surprised.
I also drove around the parts of town where I set the book, and considered the mass/energy conversions of shape-shifting dragons.
JW: What kinds of feedback have you received from your first and/or second readers?
JP: Outstanding feedback. I have some of the best first readers. I appreciate their candor and eye for details. I was very anxious to get feedback from women readers, straight and gay. So far, everyone has been very positive. My favorite comments are the ones where they tell me I pulled the character off. I wrote a convincing 26-year-old lesbian.
JW: This being your first published novel, what was your reaction when you got the news that Tor not only bought it, but two others as well?
JP: I was floored, let me tell you. I danced around my office a bit, then called some very important folks. Ken Scholes and Jay Lake were the second and third people to find out, after my wife, of course.
JW: When are books 2 and 3 slated to be released?
JP: Honeyed Words, 2011, Hearth and Home, 2012. Originally all the books were slated for a July release, but since they moved Black Blade Blues up to a May launch (April 27th), I’m guessing they could move the others up as well. Not sure yet.
JW: So, how long have you been writing fiction, and how did you get your started?
JP: I started writing as a little kid. In sixth grade, I was convinced I was going to be a poet laureate. I filled tons of notebooks with poems and short stories. I love reading tall tales, and wrote my own. I started my first novel when I was in 7th grade, typing it out on a manual typewriter, but a friend of mine took the novel with him when he moved. I know you are just kicking yourself that you can’t read the genius of that space opera about an attack on a lunar colony, and the kids who saved the day.
JW: Who have been your biggest influences in helping you develop your craft?
JP: Hard question. As a writer, I think my craft is best honed by living life. There are so many people that have influenced me in one fashion or another: family, friends, teachers who all encouraged me over the years.
I can think of a few people who have specifically influenced the craft of writing: Allan, Brenda, Keffy, the Overlake True Martial Arts crew, Fairwood Writers, the OWN group, Codex Writers, Robert, the list goes on. I have much gratitude for many, many good folks in my life.
Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch who showed me how the myths we believe about all this are bunk.
Patrick Swenson, friend, editor, writer, who taught me that my words were worth sharing and has provided me encouragement for a decade.
One individual who is much further on the publishing road than I am has become a guide to me in many ways. Over the last few years, Jay Lake has been not just a friend, but a sounding board, and a mentor. His love of words and story has been a great help in me finding my way. I love his attitude about creating story, and his encouragement to write like the wind. He’s a good egg who has been unabashed about showing me that the way ahead is full of joy.
Back a decade ago, when I decided to stop playing around and really do something with all this writing, there was one person who slogged through the trenches with me. A stalwart companion on the road of life and words. Ken Scholes read all my work, and I’ve read all his. We dreamed of publishing together, raced to finish our first novels together, and even sold our books within a year of one another. He’s my best pal, and my life has been all the richer for having him in it.
But, you know. When it comes right down to it, the most important person, the most influential in my writing career, is also the most important person in my life overall. My wife, Kathy, is a blessing above all others. I can’t imagine any aspect of my life without her in it. She makes it possible for me to take the time I need for all this.
JW: How do you balance day job, family and writing?
JP: Define “balance.” I write in the cracks. When the kids are sleeping, and the wife is doing her things. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and without her, I’d be lost. She makes it possible for me to have the time, encourages me in my quest, and is not just my best friend and partner, but encourages me to follow my dreams.
Lately, I’ve been trying to emphasize the day job a little less, and spend more time on my own growth. I find that every time I add something to my life, I suddenly have even more time to write—more energy to create, more excitement to produce. It’s counter-intuitive to most people, but I make it work.
JW: You have spent many years writing and selling short fiction. Was the transition from short stories to novels very difficult?
JP: Hahaha, no. Actually, it was liberating. Suddenly I have the room to do what I’ve been wanting to do in short stories for years.
JW: Do you plan to continue writing short stories as well as novels?
JP: I hate short stories, so yes. Actually, I love them, but they are so damn hard for me. It took me a long time to finally hear my wife’s advice and start writing novels. Who knew you couldn’t have six point-of-view characters, and eight plot threads in a short story? Okay, everybody but me, apparently. I’m getting better at shorts, and I love, love the feeling I get when someone reads my words. As my buddy Jay Lake likes to point out, you can write a lot of short stories in a year, and finishing each one gives you significant craft experience. Excellent training ground for me, frankly.
JW: What do you do when you aren’t writing?
JP: I am working on my health in general, improving my fitness, diet, etc. I am a blue belt in Tae Kwon Do, but I haven’t been going nearly enough these days.
Lately I’ve been training to become an Outdoor Specialist in the Girl Scouts. My daughter loves the scouts, and loves camping. It’s not something I’ve ever done, so it is a very cool learning experience for me... and, as you’d expect, fodder for shorts and novels. My newest short story may have been influenced in some way by all this.
I don’t talk about them much on my blog for privacy reasons, but honestly, my family is my first and most important priority. The best part of my day, every day, is when I come home for work and walk through that door. I’m a homebody, and a total dad. Spending time with my kids and my amazing wife are the best things I can think to do in any situation. Except conventions, of course. They fairly evenly hate all the standing around and talking with other writers aspect of it all.
JW: Writing, family, day job, Tae Kwon Do, Girl Scouts… when do you sleep?
JP: Sleep? You know, I learned a long time ago that the more you do, the more time you have.
I’ve always made time for my family. No matter what else happened, they come first.
I used to play online role playing games—twenty hours a week, or more. That was a part time job. Add in television and I was working almost two jobs. So I gave those up. I rarely watch television, and play no games other than a few board games with friends from time to time.
If I can get out of work on at a reasonable time, I’ll put in an hour or two every night on my current project. Add to it, I’m a fast writer, and I crank out some serious word count. I love it. Writing is as important to me as breathing. It helps define me.
I’m a creature of habits, and habitats. I spend most of my life indoors. Learning to enjoy the great outdoors has given me back significantly more energy and time than it takes. Really helping me have a richer, fuller life.
Tae Kwon Do is the one area that is suffering these days. I love the art, and especially enjoy the friends I’ve made at my school. Some of them have become first readers and are doing a stellar job. But with the day job, and all my other priorities, this is the thing that has suffered most, alas.
But sleep is a good thing, too. :)
Jen West is a freelance writer in constant search for the next interesting character or story. This is her first interview for Tor.com. Her other interviews have appeared in such venues as Shimmer magazine, Internet Review of Science Fiction, The Nebula Awards web site and Fairwood Press’s interview collection, Human Visions. She has degrees in Journalism and French from the University of Oregon. She currently resides with her writer husband and Tor author, Ken Scholes, twin baby daughters, two pudgy cats and a box garden in St. Helens, OR. You can follow Jen’s adventure through life, the universe, and everything at her livejournal I Should Have Worn Heels - Life at 5’ 3".