Nathan‘s Interview with Justin Lee Anderson
Justin Lee Anderson was kind enough to answer a few questions about his book The Lost War, which was originally self-published (and was a SBFBO winner!) and is now published by Orbit Books in an all-new edition!
You can find my review of the Orbit edition of The Lost War here.
Can you give readers a quick elevator pitch for The Lost War? What kinds of readers would be interested in it?
The long version of my elevator pitch was that it’s a Scottish epic fantasy mystery conspiracy thriller found-family road trip with a D&D vibe and a twist. But that’s quite long. The short version is that it’s an epic Scottish D&D campaign run by Stieg Larsson and M Night Shyamalan. I think if you like any of those elements, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this. I’ve been particularly interested by the number of people who’ve said to me that they don’t usually read fantasy, but really enjoyed The Lost War.
What originally inspired the story for The Lost War?
The story is a metaphor. In fact, the whole series is a metaphor for modern politics and culture. But The Lost War is particularly about one specific aspect of our culture that I really wanted to get into. The problem being, of course, that I can’t say what it is without spoiling the ending! But it’s something that I think is absolutely crucial at the moment, and will be for some time. I wanted to shine a light on that and get into talking about it. There are a lot of other elements in there that are important to me, too. Prejudice and bigotry play a large part on the story, as well as notions about what makes an ideal country. There’s politics, religion and morality sprinkled all through it, because those things interest me.
The Lost War is pretty famous for the big twist at the end. Without getting into spoilers, do you have any advice to writers about how to set up a twist without making it cheapening the character or story arcs?
I do! In fact, I wrote a blog post about it not long ago after being irritated by a scene in Picard. (https://justinleeanderson.com/the-subtle-art-of-surprise/) The short version is to write it into the fabric of the story, but don’t signpost it. I hate the Chekov’s Gun trope, whereby if you show a gun in act one, you have to fire it in act three. Don’t spoonfeed your audience. You don’t have to fire every gun you see, but you need to have seen the gun you do fire. I’ve had a few reviewers say they felt that the ending comes out of nowhere, and I can promise you that, on a reread, you will see clues all over the place. The important thing is that they’re woven into the characters and the story, so they’re not hanging out there screaming “Look at me! I’ll be important later!” The thing with The Lost War is that the ending was the point of the book. Everything was always about that ending, so everything was written towards it.
The twist in The Lost War changes a lot moving forward with the series. Was it challenging working on the next books now that everything is upended? What was easy and/or hard to continue writing now that everything has changed?
Not at all! Because now there’s a whole new challenge for them to face, and the story is about how they deal with that. It’s a thorny problem, and there are multiple ways they can approach it – so where do they even begin? On top of the overarching issue, the ending presents at least one urgent problem they have to solve, so first things first…
In some ways The Lost War is a subversion of traditional “quest” fantasy. You have a party of heroes, but they are much rougher around the edges than most “heroic” fantasies. As an author how do you decide when to lean into genre tropes and when to challenge them? What was your specific process when writing The Lost War?
I love the idea of a narrative ‘reverse’, when a writer sets up something you think you know, and then does something completely surprising. That’s usually at the core of my thoughts when I’m writing, and was very much part of The Lost War. I wanted it to feel like a traditional fantasy, but I wanted the characters to be much more rounded than their archetypes and I wanted to tell a story that was richer and more diverse than you might expect – bringing in all those elements of mystery and horror. So I wanted familiar elements, but I also wanted them to feel fresh and unpredictable. I also wanted the characters to be engaging on their own, because characters are what people come back for. So they all needed to have their own characters and stories that weren’t just serving the plot, or feeding a trope.
The Lost War was originally self-published (and won SPFBO!). Was the process of moving from self-publishing to getting published by Orbit? Were there any challenges or things you weren’t expecting about traditional publishing?
It’s been fantastic! I think the biggest difference has been all the waiting. Traditional publishing, by its nature, moves at a glacial pace and so there’s a lot of waiting for something to happen. You have a massive team of people working on your book, which is brilliant, but it takes time. Self-publishing is much more work (that I’m happy to hand off to the experts!) but much more nimble. Books can be released more quickly. But they’re likely to find a bigger audience through traditional publishing. It’s swings and roundabouts, but I’m delighted to be working with Orbit. One thing people talk about with traditional publishing is giving up control – I have to say my experience of working with my editor, Bradley Englert, has been a dream. It feels like a collaboration where we’re working together to make the best book, rather than anyone having ‘control’.
For readers who read the original version of The Lost War, what changes can they expect with the new Orbit version?
There are several new scenes, including a deleted scene from my original draft. There’s also new material written into other scenes, especially exploring the history of Eidyn and the war in a bit more depth. We fleshed out some characters a little and made a few tweaks here and there, and we set up a few things for The Bitter Crown. It was important to me that people who chose to read the new version would be rewarded for it, but that people who only read the first edition wouldn’t be lost in The Bitter Crown. I think we got that balance right and I think it’s a better book for the work we did on it.
The self-published version of The Lost War came out in 2019. Your book deals with a zombie/demon plague. Did your experience with this part of the plot/world change due to the COVID 19 pandemic while you were editing/revising the new version?
Ha! Yeah, I didn’t see that coming. I accidentally wrote a prescient plotline. I don’t think it did, except maybe to remind me of the level of stress that comes with living through “interesting times”. I was actually trying to write the sequel to my first book, Carpet Diem, when the pandemic hit. That’s a comedy urban fantasy, and I basically found that I absolutely could not write humour. I just couldn’t get into that mindset. So I switched, reluctantly at the time, to writing The Bitter Crown, and that thankfully worked out once The Lost War won SPFBO and I signed with Orbit!
What are you currently writing or working on right now?
The Bitter Crown is in edits and I’m working on the first draft of book 3 of The Eidyn Saga (title TBA), for release in late 2024, all being well.
Can you give readers a bit of a tease about what is coming up next in The Bitter Crown (the second book in the Eidyn Saga)?
Well, as I said, there are different ways they can approach this new problem and the many issues it throws up. And maybe they don’t all agree on the best course of action. And maybe some loyalties will be tested, and some history revealed…