Joseph Malik writes and lectures on advanced intelligence theory and asymmetric warfare for the U.S. military. He has worked as a stuntman, a high-rise window washer, a freelance writer, a computational linguist, a touring rock musician, and a soldier in the United States Special Operations Command. A veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he currently serves in the U.S. Army Reserve and lives in the Pacific Northwest along with his wife and their two dogs.
Dragon’s Trail is his first novel. A sequel, The New Magic, is scheduled for summer 2017.
- Can you tell a bit more about yourself?
I work in strategic intelligence for the U.S. military. Married, no kids. I drink Basil Hayden on the rocks. I don’t eat sugar and I never skip leg day. I have an affinity for spicy food, tweed jackets, and shoes with a patina. I’ve had three tours in Special Operations, I trained in desert warfare with the French Foreign Legion, and I once had sex with a female clown.
- What inspired you to write?
I was tired of reading fantasy that had no basis in reality. This was back when I was in high school, and I was reading something and I knew immediately that it was wrong. The more fantasy I read, the more mistakes I noticed, and I started doing some mythbusting on my own and I started to realize thatnobody I was reading apparently knew that the hell they were talking about. I’m not talking about magic; I’m talking about everything else. People dying instantly after being hit with a thrown knife, horses that run all day like motorcycles, swords that cut through steel armor like they’re lightsabers. I was getting into technothrillers, because they got their details so exacting, and I decided that I wanted to write books that did for swords and mail what Tom Clancy was doing for nuclear submarines. It turned into a lifetime effort. I spent the better part of a decade researching in person: studying fencing and martial arts, camping on horseback, learning mountaineering and wilderness survival, making steel in an artisanal forge, on and on. I was doing stunt work at the time, working in films and TV, so the research just kind of dovetailed with my career and I got to learn some really cool stuff: stunts on horseback, martial arts, armored combat. From there I went into high-rise window washing as I worked my way through college, but I kept researching for the books even as I was studying English and linguistics and really learning how to write. I wrote an entire, functional language for my elves, a conlang, that takes up about a hundred handwritten pages. It has its own orthorgraphy – writing – and everything. It took nearly a month of research and design just to come up with a functional pegasus saddle. I decided to make it my life’s goal to write a fantasy series where everything worked and I could use magic for, well, magic.
I finally shelved the whole idea of writing a few years back, and then I was injured in Operation Enduring Freedom back in 2012, and I revisited the first book while I was in the hospital with a lot of time on my hands. At that point, I had been working in intelligence and had done some really interesting work in the military, and I realized that the series could serve as a sandbox for my professional observations in strategic intelligence and asymmetric warfare. I rewrote it with that in mind and it all just clicked.
- What is your latest book about?
Dragon’s Trail is a cross-worlds fantasy technothriller. A stuntman from Earth ends up in a fantasy world, only to learn that the evil sorcerer everyone’s afraid of is also from Earth. I took a technothriller angle with it, though, employing narrative exposition from firsthand experience. To my knowledge, no one has ever done this.
- Where and how do you write?
Our house is an old barn that we converted. I have a den in one corner upstairs, a simple oak desk and an Aeron chair, two walls of books, and a big heavy door with soundproofing in the walls. One wall is my Wall of Awesome with all my military stuff – awards, pictures, medals – and behind my desk is my Wall of Fantasy, with a greatsword, maps of my fantasy world, sketches of the characters, images of castles and landscapes, etc. The chair is important; I think a huge part of writing is making your writing chair the most comfortable chair in the house so you’ll want to put your butt in it and write. I write pretty much every chance I get. I have a big old bulldog who sits by my desk and I’ll read passages to him.
- Did you plot and how does your plotting process work?
I’ve been working on this series on and off for about 20 years. All five books are completely plotted, though I revisited the plots and adjusted them so that I could use my own theories about conflict escalation. At this point, though, it’s really just a matter of typing them out and making them not suck.
- Do you have an editing strategy and what is it?
I write a crappy draft all the way through, and then set it aside as notes and rewrite from a blank page once I know what the story is. Then I set that draft aside and do it again. And again. I don’t really do fiddly edits. I just rewrite.
- What does your family think of your writing?
It keeps me out of trouble. Seriously, compared to my other careers – stuntman, high-rise window washer, soldier – this is pretty harmless.
- How hard was it to get your book out there?
The tough part for me was fighting against the trad pub industry for 20 years. I have 47 rejection letters for my first book and probably a lot more than that via email. At one point a major publisher – I won’t mention names, but it rhymes with “Shmaen” – had it for 18 months, assured me it was “being passed around,” and asked for a series treatment, then passed with a form letter. 18 months when I couldn’t submit to anyone else and they wouldn’t return my calls.
- What do you think is the hardest part of writing a novel?
The actual mechanical act of writing. Understanding the language to the point that it does what you tell it to. There are lots of great stories out there that are told clumsily. I think that wielding the language effectively is a dying art, and it’s criminally undervalued. A lot of people become writers these days without learning how to write.
- What do you think makes a great story?
Characters I haven’t met before.
- Looking back, what would you have done differently or why wouldn’t you?
I wouldn’t have shelved the series in frustration, and instead I would have self-published back in 2009. I should have realized that back when that major had it, it was validation that I was commercially competitive. It’s been 15 years and I have a hundred times the chops that I had back then. I should have just self-published as soon as the option availed itself.
- Where do you get your inspiration?
Literally, everywhere. I keep a notepad with me everywhere I go and I’m always taking notes.
- How do you handle writer’s block?
I stare at the wall until I start weeping blood. I put on Pandora and stare at the wall, twirling a pen for hours until something happens in my head that I want to write down.
- Your top 3 tips for people who want to start writing.
Study English. Study literature. Study writing. You don’t even have to go to college; just study the craft. If this looks easy, it’s because the person making it look easy has spent their life learning how to make it look easy. Writing well is insanely hard. It takes a lifetime of study and practice to write well.
- Where would people be able to find you online?
My website is www.josephmalik.com.