The Word Nerds got their days of the week confused this week, but are pleased to feature this week’s guest on Thursday! So, give it up for D.B. Jackson, the author of the new historical fantasy fiction novel, Thieftaker.
Jackson: THIEFTAKER developed in a somewhat roundabout way. The original idea came from something I read in a history book about London’s most infamous thieftaker, a man named Jonathan Wild. Wild built an empire for himself in the early 18th century by, among other things, arranging robberies, selling the most valuable of the stolen goods, and then returning the rest to their rightful owners for a hefty finder’s fee. He not only grew rich, he also gained a reputation for being the one thieftaker in London who could solve nearly every crime he investigated.
Upon reading about Wild’s career, I knew that I wanted to write a book about thieftakers, with an honest thieftaker as my hero, and a character modeled after Wild as my lead character’s nemesis. Originally, I wrote the first book as an alternate world urban fantasy with a quasi-Renaissance feel to the setting. But after discussions with my editor, who has been trying for years to get me to write historical stuff (I have a Ph.D. in U.S. history) I decided that I could turn this into a historical urban fantasy and set it in Colonial Boston. The change was actually very easy, and plugging the outlines of my original plot into the events surrounding the Stamp Act Riots of 1765 worked beautifully. Along the way, I also turned the Jonathan Wild character into a woman, making her, I believe, a far more interesting character, and imbuing her relationship with my hero with sexual tension that heightens the drama of their rivalry. The rest is history, sort of . .
The Nerds: In writing an alternate history, how much latitude did you feel like you had with real events/people? How did you decide when and where to stray from actual events?
Jackson: My goal in writing the Thieftaker books is not necessarily to recreate the real Boston of the 1760s, but rather to create a Boston that could have been. And so my story is built upon a couple of fairly hefty historical conceits. First of all, there were no thieftakers in Boston in the 1760s. Thieftakers were largely an Old World phenomenon, although they did make a brief appearance in North America in the early 19th century. But Ethan Kaille, my hero, and Sephira Pryce, my villain, have no direct historical counterparts. Also, it goes without saying that the magical elements of the story — Ethan is a conjurer — are entirely fictional.
So on the one hand, I have been willing to bend history quite a bit to make my story work. On the other hand, I have also gone out of my way to make the historical elements of the books as accurate as possible. I feel that the historical events, and the personalities I bring into the narrative — Samuel Adams, Ebenezer Mackintosh, James Otis, Thomas Hutchinson, and others — are not mine to use any way I wish. They are communally owned by all of us, and so I feel an obligation to deal gently with them, to keep them as true as possible to what my historical sources tell me about them.
As to when to stray and when to adhere to the history, the bottom line is that I’m writing a novel, a historical fantasy. I do my best to maintain the historical integrity of the “history part” of the story, but my first loyalty as a novelist has to be to my characters and my plot.
The Nerds: If you could be a thieftaker like Ethan Kaille, would you want that job? Why or why not?
Jackson: Well, it sort of depends. If my choice is to be a thieftaker in a novel with a writer like me doing horrible, cruel, twisted things to me every few pages, then absolutely not. On the other hand, being an actual thieftaker could be fun. Thieftakers were, essentially, the 18th century equivalent of private investigators. They recovered stolen goods and returned them to their rightful owners for a fee. That could be dangerous, obviously, but also exciting.
I would assume that if I was to be a thieftaker I would be stronger, savvier, braver, more skilled with my fists, with a blade, and with a pistol than I am in my actual life. And so if all those things were true, sure I might enjoy that job very much. If not, if I was just like I am now, then no, it probably wouldn’t be such a good idea.
The Nerds: What or who inspired you to start writing?
Jackson: I wrote my first “book” when I was six years-old. It wasn’t very good and I illustrated it myself, which didn’t improve the book at all. But my point is that I have been writing stories for just about as long as I can remember, and honestly I don’t know why. I can’t really say that anything inspired me to start. It is part of who I am; it seems to be in my DNA. I love telling stories. I love crafting language. And I have been drawn to those things my entire life.
Now, I can say that I have been inspired to write fantasy by the works of Tolkien, which made me want to read as much fantasy as I could get my hands on; by the Thomas Covenant books of Stephen R. Donaldson, which made me want to write fantasy professionally; and by the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, which informed my stylistic tendencies early in my career.
The Nerds: What’s next for you as a writer?
Jackson: I have a number of projects in the works right now. I have just put the finishing touches on the second Thieftaker book, THIEVES’ QUARRY, which will be out next summer. My agent and I have also submitted a proposal for two more Thieftaker novels, which we hope to have under contract before the year is out. And I’ll be writing more short fiction in the Thieftaker universe.
In addition to that, I have two contemporary urban fantasy projects that I’m working on, neither of which is contracted yet. One of them is now with my agent and being shopped around; the other I’m still revising. I like having several projects going at once. I find that it keeps all of them fresh. And so I imagine I’ll continue to work on these books for some time to come.