Welcome!

I'm James Maxey, the author of the Dragon Age fantasy series of Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed, the Dragon Apocalypse series of Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker, as well as the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Shamocracy

American politics seems to be in stasis. It's not quite gridlock, where nothing gets done at all. Instead, its government by autopilot. The bureaucracy continues to spit out rules, budgets continue to grow via continuing resolutions, and our foreign policy seems locked into a pattern of daily reminding us that the rest of the world is going to do whatever the hell it wants to do and we have no good options for changing that.

I'm of mixed minds about our current political drift. On the one hand, my libertarian side feels that, if our legislators are unable to band together to write new laws, whew. Most new laws always nibble away at freedom in some fashion, either by increasing the cost of government or the complexity of our lives. Having spent much of February and March slogging through my taxes, the last thing I need is for the government to pass some new "fix" to the tax laws that adds more bookkeeping to my life.

On the other hand, my biggest libertarian fear is that, if congress and the senate are no longer capable of governing, they abdicate power to the executive branch, which is then free to claim more and more power, more and more authority, without having the fear of restraint by elected officials. Not to pick on Obama, but it does feel like every other day he's altering the implementation of the ACA without bothering to seek the congressional authority to do so.  It's a devilishly complicated law that was poorly written and passed by legislators who hadn't read it, and couldn't have comprehended it if they had. I don't see this as some dark scheme to crush our current healthcare system, or implement socialism. It's just what happens when politicians do their jobs in a half-ass fashion.

What I do fear is that once congress steps back and allows the executive branch the freedom to alter the implementation of laws without seeking changes in the letter of the law, the possibility arises that this will become the new normal. Congress can devote it's real energy to doing what it does best, getting reelected, and let all the fine tuning of actual government be handled by the executive branch. They will never have to pass difficult legislation that could actually put them in danger of getting voted out by their constituents. They can pass feel good legislation without fear that it will ever become actual implemented law.

In the end, the only person with any authority who will have to answer to voters will be the president. Only, the president won't actually be running the government, since his appointments will all grind to a halt in the senate. But, it's not as if the bureaucracies will shut down if there's no politically appointed head. They'll just grind on, with the bureaucrats not really accountable to anyone. There will be no political head to crack down on them, and the money to run the bureaucracy will keep coming in as congress passes continuing resolutions year after year.

What's the name for this system of government? Where we still get to vote for our leaders, but they increasingly have no actual role in governing? If there isn't a word already, might I suggest shamocracy? Or maybe shameocracy? Because if government's become a sham, it should be our collective shame.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Where I want to be at 60

I wasn't happy with my life when I turned 30. I was divorced, stuck in a job I hated, had too much debt, no savings to speak of, hadn't published a book or even a story, was living in an apartment with two roommates, and generally felt like I hadn't accomplished much. Curiously, I was really angry with my 20 year old self for doing so much to ruin 30 year old me. The younger James hadn't made any wise choices, and had been almost oblivious to the future. The things I wanted in life... I could have had them at 30 if I'd make better choices when I was 20. But, of course, when I was 20, I didn't really know what I wanted.

But, the smartest thing that 30 year old James did was to realize that all his regrets were actually goals. All the things I wish I'd had at 30? It was time to shape my life so I could have them at 40. And, for the most part, my master plan worked out pretty well. I did have one book and a couple of stories published when I was 40. I still hadn't made enough to quit my day job, but at least I'd ditched the horrible job I'd had when I turned 30 for a much less soul crushing job. I'd also saved a decent sum of money during the decade since I'd participated in my new job's 401k. I owned a house. I was in relatively good health, thanks to drugs that had my allergies and asthma under control. Alas, I was divorced again. I apparently hadn't learned the right lessons from failed marriage #1. And because of the divorce, I couldn't afford the house I owned, and wound up selling it for a loss that wiped out a big chunk of my 401k. Still, while things weren't perfect, I was happier at 40 than I had been at thirty. The stuff I wasn't happy about once more became my goals for the next decade.

I wanted to publish ten books by the time I was 50, and to be free of a day job. I wanted to finally have a good relationship, and own a house that wasn't a huge money pit. I really, really wanted to be completely debt free except for a mortgage. And, I wanted to be physically fit. I'd only discovered the joy of physical activity while being able to breath freely in my late 30s. I really wanted to build on that and see what was possible.

On the last goal, I started off by backsliding, partly thanks to my first goal. Writing a lot of books means sitting in front of a computer a lot of hours. I never have been able to shed myself of my day job, so I felt like I really didn't have time to exercise. My weight exploded, and by the time I was 48 I was nearly 300 pounds. Luckily, I woke up to the stupidity of what I was doing to my body and turned things around. I lost a lot of weight and carved out time to exercise. Now, I can run a 5k and yesterday did a 50 mile bike ride. I can say with some confidence I'm in better shape at 50 than I was at 30.

A big part of this is because of my wife Cheryl. She's completely on board with my fitness kick and has made it part of her own life, so she's right there beside me on my bike rides and my runs, and her awesome organizational skills play a big role in planning our meals out so our calorie intake is sensible. She's my perfect partner physically, mentally, emotionally. It took me over four decades to find her, but, wow, was she worth the wait.

Financially, sheesh. I'm in more debt than ever, after being on the verge of complete debt freedom only a few years ago. Our new house is terrific, but we had to buy a new furnace and put a lot of work into the interior. Then, on Cheryl's old house, the furnace blew, the plumbing failed, and it sat empty for months and months while we paid two mortgages before we finally broke down and rented it. Oh, and did I mention the transmission exploding in my car? Or the power steering failing? I had vowed to drive that car until the wheels fell off, but finally had to break down and buy a new car.

Luckily, my 401k has recovered nicely from the hit it took ten years back, and from losing over a third of its value when the housing market crashed in 2008. Between our 401ks and the value of our real estate, our assets add up to more than our debts, so I guess we're ahead.

Still, goal one for when I'm 60? This time, seriously, debt free, except possibly for a mortgage.

Goal two: A lot more books. I'm hesitant to set a numerical goal. I'd like to write 20 books over the next ten years, and think that's a not unreasonable goal. But, part of me is intrigued with the thought of finding a book with a big idea that takes a long time to write correctly. What could I produce if I really focused on one book for a full year? Two years? Five? I pride myself on writing fast, but I also pride myself on trying new things. So, no numeric goal for the number of books I'll have published in the next decade, but when I tell people ten years from now how many books I've written, I want them to say, "Wow. That's a lot of books."

Goal three: I want to read another 260 novels. This is a novel every two weeks for the next decade. A modest goal; I know people who read a hundred books or more in a year. But, I want to keep developing my brain as well as my body. I seriously slacked off on reading novels for most of my 40s, and didn't really pick up the habit again until just last year. I don't intend to lose my momentum now.

Goal four: Body. I don't want yesterday's 50 mile bike ride to be the most impressive thing I do with my body in my 50s. On the other hand, I've been so focused on it, I haven't really given a lot of thought as to what my next goal will be. 100 miles in a day seems like it might be beyond my practical limits. Now that I can run 5k, I know I want to build to 10k, but I don't know if I want to build to full marathon distances. I can only say that there will be a next goal.

Okay, 60 year old James, here you go. My promises to you. Hope they serve you well.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Snow days

When I was a kid, I looked forward to a snow so I could stay home and play. Now, I keep my fingers crossed for a snow day so I can stay home and work.

I finished the third draft of my latest novel Friday, pretty much two weeks ahead of my personal schedule because I had a day off two weeks ago due to snow, then two days this week. I normally squeeze in an hour or two in the evenings to write. Getting three whole days to focus on the book gave me momentum. Nothing makes a thousand words flow out of you better than having written a thousand words preceding them. Momentum matters.

I did take a few walks in the snow, and helped Cheryl build a snowman. But, as I reach the verge of fifty, I'm finally realizing a fundamental truth about life: Work is more satisfying than play.

It's fun to go play in the snow. It's fun to go to concerts and movies, fun to watch television or read comic books, fun to hang out with friends at bars and just shoot the breeze.

And having fun is important! It's good for the brain, and, in the case of my hiking and biking and running, good for my body.

Work, on the other hand, isn't fun. Even the creative stuff, like writing, can turn into a slog. On Thursday, I kept making bargains with myself to sit in the chair for one more hour, to make sure I got to the end of the chapter I was working on. Then I'd move the goalpost and tell myself, nope, after the next chapter, then you can stop... and then I'd keep going. My back ached from sitting in the same spot for hours. My brain felt limp in the aftermath. And yet... yeah! I've written another book! Endorphin rush!

The entertainment value of watching television is like chocolate. A little here and there is nice. A steady diet of it will leave you sick and fat. Sitting at a keyboard for five hours and trying to make sentences go in the proper order is tedious and exhausting. But, when you're done, you have the satisfaction of knowing you've accomplished something. It really is a feeling like nothing else in the world.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

500 days on My Fitness Pal


Today marks my 500th day on My Fitness Pal. Cheryl and I ran 5k on the Al Beuhler Trail in Durham, the first time we've done 5k on hilly terrain. Our previous runs of this length have been done on the Ocanneechee Speedway, which is completely flat. The hills didn't really affect my time. I still made the run in a little over 50 minutes, though it certainly felt a lot longer than running the equal distance on a flat track.

Came home and did 80 seconds of planking. Cheryl and I have been doing planks every day for the last few weeks. They look like they'd be easy. Essentially, they're a pushup where you don't go up or down, just hold your body perfectly straight, supported only by your toes and forearms. But, ten seconds in, you discover just how difficult it is to hold you body straight like that. It's supposed to strengthen your core, and so far it seems to be working. According to the program we're using, I'm supposed to be doing 5 minutes of planking each day by the end of the month. We'll see.

When I'm hiking, I like listening to audio books, but when I'm running I don't feel like I can follow the narrative. Nor do I want just any random music. So, I've been listening to favorite albums as I run, which works out really well, since most albums mesh well with my 50 minute pace. Today, I listened to U2's Achtung Baby. I really consider this to be U2 at their artistic peak. It's stylistically much more daring than Joshua Tree, flows nicely from song to song, and is really unbeatable lyrically, with tracks like One, the Fly, and So Cruel. The next time I run, I might listen to a Radiohead album, or maybe the Coroner's Gambit by the Mountain Goats. The latter might be a little short for the run, but listening to a collection of songs about death will certainly provide some motivation to keep moving.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

5k Achieved!

So, when I said Cheryl and I would be building up to run 5k, I didn't think I'd hit the goal before the end of the first week of the new year. But, we decided just to go for it this morning, and, holy cow, we did it!

I'm again struck by similarities between the skills I've developed as a novel writer and skills I'm now using to become more fit. Novel writing requires lots of small, incremental steps in order to build to one large whole. To get to the 100,000 words requires lots of small sessions where you only get out 1000 words, or even 100. But, it all adds up. Progress that seems tiny gets you closer to your goal.

The same has proven true of our fitness quest. When we started almost a year and a half ago, we couldn't run 5 minutes without stopping, let alone 50 minutes. But, we got  here by running one minute, then walking one minute, then running one minute, repeat. Then, once that was comfortable, we moved up to two minute runs, then four minute runs. It was only a few months ago I finally managed to run a full mile without stopping, and not that much longer after that I made it to two miles.

My writing motto is, little by little, the work gets done. It turns out to be true for running as well. I guess, with the 5k under my belt, I'll need to start looking for more ambitious goals. I mean, is a 10k possible this year? Or am I out of my mind?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

1001-A Fitness Update

As of today's hike on the Eno with Cheryl, I have logged 1001 miles of physical activity in Endomondo. About 450 is biking, another 450 is hiking and walking, and the rest is stuff like kayaking and running.

Next year will have a lot more running. Cheryl and I are building up to being able to run an entire 5k distance. Right now, I can go about 3k, with 1k of walking at the beginning and another 1k at the end.

Also next year, I'm planning a 50 mile bike ride to celebrate my 50th birthday.

I'm now faithfully attending a gym near my work, and starting to get my upper body into shape, since most of my activity to date has mainly strengthened my legs. My goal is to be able to do an actual unassisted chin up by my 50th birthday. I've never in my life been able to do one; I was kind of a scrawny kid, alas. But, I'm using the weight assisted machine to do them at the moment, and feel confident that I can get to the point I can do at least one or two within the next three months.

I feel like I should have something profound to say, on the occasion of having hiked (etc.) a thousand miles in a year. But, having worked out Monday, ran yesterday, and hiked today, all I can really say is: Man, am I going to sleep good tonight.

The Storyteller's Gift

Earlier this month, I was invited to take part in an event at the main branch of the Orange County Library called The Storyteller's Gift, where local authors discussed important books they'd received as gifts. This was my essay:

My grandfather Sid loved to read. His house was of full of books they'd spilled out to shelves on the front porch, where paperbacks soaked in the humidity of southern summers. There was no logic to the organization. Cookbooks would be mixed in with histories and random single volumes from encyclopedias. The books were purchased in bulk at flea markets and thrift stores, an eclectic collection of dime store romances, lurid non-fiction, and pulp detective tales. National Geographics accumulated in every corner, as well as Watchtower magazines, and numerous children’s books filled with Bible stories.

My grandfather never went to college. He’d grown up poor in coal mining country and worked most of his life in a factory. Reading helped him find a larger world beyond Appalachia. None of his children inherited his love of reading. I never saw my father with a book in hand, only the occasional woodworking magazine. The houses of my aunts and uncles had a book or two, but none showed an inclination toward building a library as grand as their father’s.

Then I came along. I was a kid more interested in books than toys. When I went to his house, I risked life and limb digging out National Geographics from tottering stacks taller than I was. The first science fiction anthology I ever read was pried from one of his porch shelves. I loved all the books about ancient astronauts and Bigfoot and alien abductions.

If I ever had a relative who should have given me a book for Christmas, it was my grandfather. But, he was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t celebrate holidays. While he was generous in letting me take home books I found on is porch, I can’t recall him ever giving me a book as a gift.

Like a lot of bookworms, he was a quiet person. Our only conversation I recall was him telling me how one day cars would run on hydrogen and we’d fill up our tanks with water.

He died when I was eleven. My grandmother survived him by over thirty years. The collection of books never changed after he passed away. They just kept rotting on the front porch, or collecting cobwebs in their stacks along the walls. She never got rid of the books, but never read anything other than the Watchtowers. For three decades, I never saw any new books show up on the shelves.
When she passed away a few years ago, her children had the task of emptying out the house. Silverfish and mold had ravaged the books on the porch. Cheap paper and decades of southern heat had reduced the books inside to fragile yellow pages that fell apart as you turned them.

I never went to her house after her funeral. It was the task of my aunts to settle her estate. I was told that the books had been hauled off to the dump, with a few of the more intact ones going to Goodwill. They’d save me a National Geographic from March of the year I was born. I was happy to have it, thinking this was the only link I’d ever have to that childhood library.

Two years ago, I went to my mother’s house the weekend before Christmas. I don’t celebrate the holiday myself, but my Mother and siblings do. I attend seasonal events with the firm rule that I don’t take part in gift exchanges.

My mother was almost apologetic when she came out of the back bedroom with a cardboard box for me. It wasn’t wrapped. It was just a bunch of random objects, all of them old. There was an ancient Kodak camera, an old conch shell, a few yellowed photos, a frozen watch. And, at the bottom of the box, books.

She’d saved these things while helping clean out my grandmother’s house and thought I might want them. My grandfather had one bookshelf in a back bedroom that had glass doors, so that the books inside had been in decent condition. She’d saved me a few science fiction and adventure novels.
I dug through the box and discovered that my grandfather had been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. There were a couple of Barsoom novels and a few Tarzan books, including a reasonably intact hardcover of Tarzan of the Apes.

I flipped to the copyright page. A. C. McClurg & Co., 1914.
I was no expert, but 1914 had to be darn close to the date Tarzan was first published.
I pulled out my phone.

Tarzan was originally published by A. C. McClurg & Co., 1914. First editions were worth $65,000, with dust jackets; jacketless editions like the one I held went for a mere $3000. Everything about my book matched the pictures on the internet, save for one small detail: While the copyright page listed the publisher as McClurg, the spine was stamped A. C. Burt.

Further research revealed the truth. A. C. Burt had reprinted the Tarzan books in the U.S. using the original British printing plates, including the copyright page. In perfect condition, they might be worth $50.

It didn’t matter. If it had been a first edition, I couldn’t imagine selling it. Flipping through the pages, the smell that washed over me was the exact scent of my grandfather’s porch. Even now, it takes me back to childhood.
This year, I finally read Tarzan. To say the novel hasn’t aged well is an understatement. The style is lurid. The plot is built on one implausible coincidence after another. There’s cringe-inducing racism. Tarzan, an abandoned white baby in a dark jungle, rises above the savage natives due to his superior intellect and fine breeding.

Toward the end of the book, the plot strains to tick the boxes of every imaginable adventure scenario, as Tarzan comes to America and races a car through a forest fire to rescue Jane and… I’m not making that up. Tarzan knew how to drive, because, why not? At this point, I was enjoying the book as an unintentional farce.

I reached the final scene, knowing that Tarzan and Jane confess their undying love and go back to the jungle… only that’s not how the book ends at all. In defiance of every Hollywood  adaptation, after crossing an ocean to find Jane, Tarzan realizes that, if he tells her he loves her, she’ll come back to Africa. But he also realizes she’ll never fit in there, any more than he belongs in the civilized world. The book closes with a perfect final sentence, one of the most satisfying closing lines I’ve ever read, as Tarzan throws away his chance of happiness in order to ensure Jane will have a better life. In an instant, a novel I hadn’t liked very much became a classic I wanted to talk with people about.

But who could I talk to? I didn’t know anyone who enjoyed old pulp novels. 
Except, of course, I did. He was gone now, but the fact he had a whole collection of Tarzan books told me a lot about his reading tastes. For the first time, I understood that it wasn’t just chance I’d found science fiction on my grandfather’s porch, or books about UFO’s piled under his coffee table. The books he’d chosen to preserve in his glass case were the ancestors of the books I now write.
It took me almost four decades to figure out that my grandfather had been a nerd. He’d lived in rural Virginia with no one around who shared his geeky interests. He didn’t talk much, but I bet he wanted to talk about those books.

I hope, by reading his books now, I’m doing my part to carry on the conversation. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Thinking about books, thinking about Greg....

"All over the States I wandered, and into Canada and Mexico .  The same story everywhere.  If you want bread you’ve got to get in harness, get in lock step.  Over all the earth a gray desert, a carpet of steel and cement.  Production!  More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more libraries, more museums.  Forward!"
--Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

My best friend Greg Hungerford passed away four years ago two days before Christmas. Of course, the holiday reminds me of him, but this year I've had a lot of other reminders as well. As I've been going back and rereading classic novels I either skipped or failed to appreciate in my school years, I keep running into books that remind me of Greg.

For instance, I would love to have read the Island of Dr. Moreau while Greg was still alive and harassed him until he read it as well (though, for all I know, he had read it, and it was my ignorance of the book alone that prevented a discussion). I think Greg would have really appreciated the religious undertones of the book, and the way the lines between man and animal get blurred. Greg and I talked a lot about books, but, curiously, we seldom read the same books. He was a big fan of biographies. I tended to lean toward science. He loved big, dense novels by writers like Faulkner. I loved tight little tales like the Grifters. But, while our tastes didn't overlap, the important thing was we were both readers. We both kept filling our heads with ideas, and used the other to test out those ideas through long, meandering arguments.

One thing we both loved were humorous authors. We'd swap books by Dave Barry, and both quoted extensively from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Whenever Dave Barry would publish his "Year in Review" column, it was something of a tradition for us to read it together. Greg usually did the actual reading out loud. He had a wonderful reading voice, and could manage to make it through most of the sentences without helplessly cracking up, as I was prone to do. No matter what he read out loud, he sounded like he'd practiced the material a dozen times, even if it was his first time glimpsing it. He just had the ear and the timing to translate the written word into poetic sound.

Of course, the single most perfect memory I have of Greg and a book comes from when I went to visit him in Athens Georgia. We were driving to get something to eat. As we pulled up to a stoplight, he suddenly threw open the car door and ran into the intersection. It was only then that I noticed a paperback book on the pavement. He snatched up the book and made it back to the driver's seat before the light changed.

"You really wanted that book," I said.

"It was on the road," he said.

"I saw."

"No," he said. "It was On the Road." He held up the Jack Kerouac classic. That's a coincidence even I find hard to believe, and I was there!

This year, I read On the Road again. I hated it. Behavior I was oblivious to when I read it in college now left me wondering how anyone could admire the book. Dean Moriarty, the most interesting character in the book, is a horrible slacker who can't hold a job. He runs around the country making babies with women, then abandoning them.

I encountered this same attitude in Tropic of Cancer, which I just finished last week. The book denounces honest work as a kind of slavery, and ends when the narrator convinces a man to leave his pregnant girlfriend because settling down with her is going to be the end of his freedom and happiness. The man agrees, but, feeling at least some twinge of guilt, he gives the narrator all the money he has on him to take to the woman to help her out, at least a little. The narrator sees his friend off, then keeps the money, because he's been broke the whole book and feels like he could use a little break from crushing poverty.

I can tell you that Greg's attitude toward jobs was similar to the Henry Miller quote at the top of this column. In the years I knew him, he probably had twenty or thirty different jobs. Only a few lasted more than a month or two. He wasn't lazy... he worked hard as hell when he found something that interested him, like repairing computers or rebuilding a carburetor. But, he was someone who was more suited to working his own hours and being his own boss. He didn't take kindly to the harness. He never quite fell into lock step.

Despite his years of drifting, and despite his deep seated desire not to get stuck in a steady job, Greg broke the mold of so many of the characters I've been reading about. Unlike Dean Moriarty, unlike Henry Miller, when Greg finally had a child, there was never, ever, even once, any thought of abandoning her. It didn't trap him to settle down and raise his daughter. He finally put down roots, and found that people, like trees, drawn nourishment from such structures.

Miller and Kerouac sang the praises of men who behaved badly. Greg didn't listen to their songs. The world needs more books written about men like him.