Interview with Steampunk Mystery Author Dan Willis
I recently reached out to steampunk author Dan Willis and invited him to do an interview. And to avoid it sounding canned and boring, we emailed back and forth, like a real conversation. Enjoy!
How long have you been an author? And what prompted you to dive into writing fictional prose?
I’ve been an official author for almost 20 years. My first published book, “The Dragon Well,” was released in November of 2004 as part of the DragonLance line. They were doing a series of YA books and wanted to put them out quickly so they had four different authors each write one book that made up a larger story. Mine was book #3. I ended up writing three books for the DragonLance: The New Adventures line, then one for the regular DragonLance line. That last book was titled “The Survivors,” came out in 2008. Those books didn’t exactly pay well and I had a family to feed, so after that I dropped out of publishing.
I did lots of other things, sold insurance, was a programmer, built websites, etc., but despite all that, I always came back to telling stories. While I’d been away, the publishing industry had been hit hard by the disappearance of bookstores and getting a paying publishing gig was impossible unless you already had a massive following. So, I went indie. I wrote a YA Steampunk Western called “The Flux Engine” but never really got indie publishing figured out.
Eventually I tried again with a series of Dieselpunk detective stories and this time I got it. I’m just about to publish the 6th book in my Arcane Casebook series and it’s going well.
As to what drove me to write, I hated spelling. You see, when I was in 6th grade, my teacher gave us the option of learning a list of spelling words and then taking a quiz, or writing a short story. I hated spelling, mostly because I have ADHD like a puppy and nobody knew about it in the late 70s. That meant I couldn’t memorized for crap, still can’t.
So, I took to writing short stories. I always had a flair for making up fanciful tales and in 6th grade I didn’t even know about things like story structure, voice, character, or conflict, so I just wrote. My teacher gave me A’s despite all the spelling errors, and I was hooked. I spent a lot of my life not writing, but it’s something I always come back to.
I love the idea of telling someone a story and having them transported by it. I guess at my heart, I’m an entertainer, just like a comedian or a musician or an actor. That’s why I love hearing from readers who tell me they loved my book or that some part of it spoke to them. That’s a “job well done” for me.
Wow. 20 years? That’s eternity when you think in terms of Amazon as today’s central bookstore. But it’s a good thing that teacher gave you an “out”!
What was it about those Dieselpunk detective stories that clicked for you?
I have to admit, I never considered writing mysteries until a few years ago. I was a dyed in the wool fantasy man. I wanted knights and wizards and monsters and magic and that’s what I wrote. The problem was that I just couldn’t get any traction doing that. I suspect my work was just too derivative.
As time went on, I became enamored of Steampunk. I loved the aesthetic, the machines, the gadgets, the romance of it all. So I wrote a Wild West steampunk story and it did okay. Skip forward a few years and a buddy of mine wanted me to do a short story for a book series he was doing. The premise was that earth had been shattered into zones of reality where various genres held sway. There was a sci-fi zone, a vampire zone, a sword and sorcery zone, etc.
I’d just watched the Maltese Falcon and on a whim I asked if I could do a noir detective story set in a 1930s Chicago. He loved the idea and I wrote it. What shocked me was that I was able to tell a gripping detective story, complete with a mob hit, a double cross, and a femme fatale in about 10K words. At this point my writing career was going nowhere and I decided, “what the heck, I’ll write a noir detective series with magic set in 1930s New York.” I wasn’t coming at this cold, mind you. I’m a huge fan of police procedurals TV shows, mystery movies, and I’ve always been a fan of the Art Deco era (which is very dieselpunk in it’s look).
So I did it. I figured out how to plot out a mystery so I could keep my readers guessing whiteout hiding vital clues from them while keeping the story moving. I thought through how magic would work in the real world, what it could do and what it couldn’t and I wrote a book. I’ll admit, when the time came to put it out, I was scared. I worried that my take on Noir, New York, detective books, or even magic might not measure up, but as it turned out people liked it. What’s more, I liked it, and that’s the heart of good fiction. You have to love your stories. If you don’t, why tell them? Why would anyone else love them if you don’t?
So, as they say, the rest is history. I just launched the sixth book in the Arcane Casebook series and they’ve garnered an audience who love them and they’re doing well. I plan to write a few dozen of these, that’s how much I like Alex and his adventures.
I have enjoyed everything from Jack Reacher to, as you mentioned, Sam Spade and the Maltese Falcon. Maybe we joke at times over old fashioned noir-style films, but I feel there is a huge, silent fanbase of that style. Otherwise we wouldn’t all be drawn to it!
Speaking of fans, what has been your experience with interacting with your own fans?
I’ve always been impressed by fantasy fans. Some people put Steampunk and its little brother, Dieselpunk in the Science Fiction category, but I find a lot more fantasy fans in my audience. These people are used to dealing with strange worlds, magic systems, weird science, unique vehicles, mad scientists, secret formulas, super weapons, and all the great things that make up speculative fiction. That means my audience is willing to give me a lot of room to tell a story and develop a New York that feels familiar but is magical and new just the same. I put my email address in the back of every book and I hear from fans almost every day. I read every one and I can tell you, without reservation, that I have awesome fans. I get simple notes thanking me for delivering a great reading experience. I get people who think they’ve figured out something I’ve been setting up for a couple fo books (sometimes they’re right, which is very cool). And, I get lots of helpful notes pointing out places where my finger moved too fast on my keyboard and let typos slip in (I like those too since I can update the file on Amazon and send out cleaner books to the next guy). I do have editors, but as I mentioned my spelling is terrible so I have the ability to overwhelm their awesome editor powers. 🙂
All in all, I love Sci-Fi & Fantasy fans. They’re awesome and as long as you tell them a good story, they’ll be happy.
The best place for fans to find me online is Facebook. I have a private Arcane Casebook Facebook group that anyone can join if they ask.
Thank you, Dan, for taking time out of your busy schedule. (And pending a launch just around the corner, I hear!)
In case you, the reader, haven’t caught wind, check out Dan Willis’ Arcane Casebook series!
Don’t take my word for it. Find out what tons of fans already know and grab this steampunk mystery series for yourself.
Also, visit his website and you can sign up for the series’ prequel, Dead Letter.
DON’T FORGET: There’s still time to WIN a copy of In Plain Sight (along with five other steampunk mystery paperbacks!)