Books, Games, Rock and Roll: An Interview With James L. Sutter

Books Crosspost Featured Games Music

Author James L. Sutter has been busy. In between the releases of his romantic young adult novel (Darkhearts, Wednesday Books/Macmillan) and two comics (Starfinder: Angels of the Drift #1, Dynamite Entertainment and the story “Remakers” in Schlock Mercenary #17: A Little Immortality) in June, plus writing for future projects, he found the time to answer a few questions about his work, particularly on Darkhearts, which you can read a review of here. Please welcome him here, and make sure you check out his work!

Melanie R. Meadors: Up to this point, you’ve mostly been known for your fantasy and roleplaying game work. What made you decide to write a contemporary young adult book?

James L. Sutter: I know it’s trite to say that sometimes the book chooses you, but in this case it really felt like that.

It was early in the pandemic, and given the state of the world, I’d become thoroughly disillusioned with the big dystopian space-horror novel I was writing. At the same time, while I’d always casually enjoyed contemporary YA, I suddenly found myself mainlining book after book. YA contemporary at its best is pure voice, and everything I picked up was just so funny and raw and genuine… It felt like a different sort of escape than any of my usual fantasy and science fiction.

And then one morning I stumbled across the Wikipedia page for Stuart Sutcliffe, the original bassist for the Beatles, who left the band right before they got huge. And I was thinking “God, what would that have felt like, to walk away right before you became immortal?” And then, because I’d been reading so much YA romance: “…and what if you fell in love with one of them?!” The idea was so captivating, and resonated so strongly with some elements from my own life, that I immediately leapt out of bed and wrote the first two chapters of Darkhearts, pretty much as they appear in the book.

When I sat back after that first writing frenzy and looked at what I’d written, I knew that, strategically speaking, it was not a good idea. I’d spent my entire career writing adult science fiction and fantasy. I had an adult science fiction and fantasy agent. Absolutely nobody was looking for a queer YA contemporary rom-com from me. But it just felt so good to write! And I could tell that joy was coming through on the page. So I decided to keep going, and I’m really glad I did. I think it’s hands-down the best thing I’ve ever written—there are parts that still make me laugh when I read them.

There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere about not putting yourself in a box, and just making the art that makes you happy.

MRM: One of my favorite parts of Darkhearts is the dialogue between David and Chance. Could you tell us a bit about your process of writing this? Did it all come very naturally to you, or did it take a couple drafts to get things like voice down?

JLS: The voices in this book are all just different aspects of my own—both my current voice and the way my friends and I talked when I was a teen. Really, that opportunity to use my own voice was what propelled the entire project, allowing me to get so much closer to the characters than I was used to when writing about wizards and demons. It was hugely refreshing, and combined with the first-person narration let me just banter with the characters the way I would with friends.

Relatedly, one thing I love about this book is how often reviews—both positive and negative—talk about Darkhearts having a very “boy” voice. Especially with YA and male/male romance, I think it’s sometimes tempting to create sanitized heartthrobs that can appeal to the widest possible demographic. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I really wanted to write a romance that represented the teenage boys I knew (and was): sweet and thoughtful, sure, but also horny, crude, immature… So while this book is a love story, it’s also an ode to the Secret Life of Teenage Bros. Yes, they’re going to swoon over each other and have grand romantic moments, but they’re also gonna make dick and poop jokes. They contain multitudes.

Image Credit: Elise Koncsek

MRM: David and Chance are musicians, and this plays a big role in the story of Darkhearts. I know music is also a part of your life. Could you tell us a bit about that?

JLS: When I was fifteen, I fronted a punk band. We never got famous, but we played a lot of shows, and even got on local radio a couple of times. Yet I still remember being eighteen, watching musicians younger than me starting to blow up or get signed, and feeling like a has-been—like I hadn’t even been to college yet, and somehow I’d already missed my shot. Our society is so obsessed with fame, and with succeeding right out of the gate, that I think a lot of kids walk around with some version of that feeling—whether it’s music, sports, theater, etc. So this book is me trying to talk to all those kids about what it means to miss your shot—and how even if it is true, life goes on. The big dreams aren’t the only ones that can make you happy.

As it turns out, I never became a rock star (though in my twenties I did get to check off some nice bucket list items playing bass in a metalcore band). But I’ve never stopped writing and playing music, and still constantly find fun new outlets for it. For instance, right before the pandemic, I spent two summers playing guitar in the band for a theater group that staged hilarious, low-budget outdoor productions of the classic Star Wars films. It was an absolute blast!

MRM: Do you have a favorite young adult novel or author that readers should check out?

JLS: I’m terrible at picking favorites! A lot of the authors I love are names you probably already know: Casey McQuiston, Jeff Zentner, David Yoon, Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Mary H.K. Choi, Krystal Sutherland, Jay Kristoff & Amie Kaufman….

But if I’m going to pick just one, Abigail Johnson’s contemporary YA romance books—Even if I Fall, Every Other Weekend, If I Fix You, etc.—were the ones a friend recommended at the start of the pandemic that took me from casual fan of the genre to actively devouring it. Anything she writes is an insta-buy for me.

MRM: What was your favorite book when you were a teen? Do you feel like it influenced your path in life at all?

JLS: I’m gonna cite two: The Sleeping Dragon by Joel Rosenberg and Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

The Sleeping Dragon was the first time I encountered the concept of roleplaying games, and was also the first time I realized that language had a rhythm like music—that you could use beats and punctuation to speed up an action scene or slow down a contemplative scene.

Hyperion just blew my head off with its scope. It was the first time I realized that instead of having one big idea or setting in an SF book, you could have dozens, and just squash them all together.

Would I have become a game designer if I hadn’t read The Sleeping Dragon? While I learned to play D&D from my fifth grade teacher, who knows if I would have been part of the group badgering him to teach us if I hadn’t already caught inklings of the idea from Rosenberg. And Hyperion directly inspired me to keep trying to put science fiction elements into my work on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, which went over well and eventually led to me becoming the inaugural Creative Director of the Starfinder RPG.

One note, though: Just because something was influential on me doesn’t mean I recommend it. Looking back, The Sleeping Dragon is chock full of unnecessary and offensive content, and without rereading I can’t vouch that Hyperion doesn’t have some of the same. But both were important to me at the time, and I learned a lot from them. That tension is one of the reasons I’ve always been wary of “classics” in any genre—I think “classic” inevitably just means “was important to me at a pivotal time in my life.” Sure, younger readers and writers coming up now could read the books that were important to folks my age, but I think they’ll be much better served by books that are current for them, that reflect our growth as artists and society. (And it really is growth. Trust me—I worked for a while republishing old pulp-era speculative fiction, and while it was interesting for its historical context, none of it holds a candle to, say, N. K. Jemesin or Leigh Bardugo.)

Image: Wednesday Books

MRM: Can you tell us a little about your path as a writer? Did you always want to be a writer, did anything get in the way?

JLS: I’ve been writing for as long as I’ve been reading, and always kind of knew it was the thing I wanted to do for a living. I can vividly remember being in sixth grade and writing a story that made my English teacher cry as she read it to the class—and then she gave it to my math teacher, who also cried. That was a point where I thought, “Okay, I might actually be good at this.”

That said, I had absolutely no idea how to go about building a career. In college, my favorite Creative Writing teacher suggested I try writing for the university newspaper, and I loved it—all my stories were gonzo journalism where I got to go have adventures and then write about them. It was 100% sex and rock and roll (I wasn’t really into drugs), and I thought, “This is it! I’ll be a journalist!”

Then I graduated and realized that your average suburban newspaper does not, in fact, want to pay you to write about sex and rock and roll. So I was quickly growing bored with the reality of journalism, and saw that Paizo, the company that published the official Dungeons & Dragons magazines as well as Amazing Stories, was local to Seattle. They were hiring for an Editor-in-Chief, so I emailed the CEO and said, “Hey, I’m totally unqualified for that job, but here’s what I’ve written in the past… do you have any other jobs I might be good for?”

In one of the luckiest breaks of my life, the CEO, Lisa Stevens, invited me in for an interview. I have to laugh now imagining what she must have thought looking at this earnest little twenty-year-old punk with his portfolio of concert reviews and sex advice, but she hired me on the spot… to find images for their new webstore, at a nickel a jpg. Yes, I was a human webscraper, but it was a foot in the door! From there I became the editorial intern, then the entire customer service department, and within maybe a year I was an assistant editor on Dungeon, learning to develop and edit adventures and other material for D&D.

And then things really took off. After a few years, we created our own D&D-style roleplaying game, Pathfinder, which through another series of lucky breaks got huge, and brought a whole host of new opportunities. I spent 13 years as an editor, developer, manager, and game designer, eventually becoming both the Executive Editor in charge of the Pathfinder tie-in novel line, as well as the Creative Director for Starfinder, our science-fantasy version of Pathfinder, which was also a hit. Along the way, I also got to write two Pathfinder novels—Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine—as well as comics, video games, and short stories and essays for various science fiction, fantasy, and horror magazines. In 2017, I left the company to write full-time, and these days I’m mostly focused on fiction (though I still can’t say no to the occasional game or comic project…).

In terms of what got in my way… Honestly, I’ve been both incredibly lucky and deeply privileged, but nobody makes it in publishing without taking some lumps. For instance, after having my first two novels published, it still took me three literary agents and three novel projects dying on submission before Darkhearts sold. There’s no such thing as a steady upward trajectory in the arts—you just have to refuse to stop. And the great thing about being a writer is that no one can make you! As long as you’re writing, you’re still in the game. And if you ever stop getting rejected occasionally, it probably means you’re not aiming high enough.

MRM: If someone came to you and asked how they could be a writer, what would you tell them?

JLS: You just have to write. Sit down and write a story (or an RPG adventure, or a nonfiction article, or whatever you love) all the way through. Then do it again. There are a ton of great ways to improve your craft or odds of publishing—workshops, books, podcasts, critique groups, freelancing—but none are going to do you any good if you don’t want it bad enough to put in the hours. The good news, though, is that it’s way easier to pursue than most of the arts. You don’t need a theater space. You don’t need to tour in a van for months. You can write for fifteen minutes in your car on your lunch break every day and make a novel that’ll knock people’s socks off.

Oh—and you don’t have to “work your way up” into novels. When I was coming up, everybody still parroted the 20th-century advice that you should write and sell short stories first. While there’s something to be said for practicing telling a complete story, and short stories are a lovely art form in themselves, they don’t really affect your ability to sell a novel. If you want to write a book, just write a book, query some agents, and see what happens.

Image credit: Elise Koncsek

MRM: What does a typical working day look like for you? Do you find you need to keep a schedule, or can you get things done without one?

JLS: When I left my day job in 2017, I crafted the perfect schedule: I would get up, write for a few hours, go for a bike ride, and then go be social. It was just as amazing as I’d imagined, and I wrote a ton.

That lasted for one month. Then my wife’s ME/CFS got so bad that she had to quit her job and became mostly bedridden—and has remained so for the last six years. Overnight I went from being a full-time writer to being a part-time writer and full-time caretaker and househusband.

As a result, like caregivers everywhere, I had to learn how to squeeze writing in around other, higher priorities. While I still find plenty of time to write, I also try (sometimes fruitlessly) not to beat myself up too much about word counts, etc. Yes, deadlines need to be hit—but also, life is precious and fragile. Writing is a cool job, but it’s still just a job. People come first.

Which is maybe a long, self-important way of saying that I don’t have a schedule—just a blizzard of to-do lists. These days, I try to write in timed, 50-minute work sprints, and if I can fit three of those in somewhere before 7pm, along with all my household responsibilities and work admin, I’m doing great.

MRM: There are as many different ways of writing a book as there are authors, and many times, each book demands its own process. What was the process of writing Darkhearts like, and was it different from writing other things?

JLS: I find I need structure in order to write confidently and efficiently, and so break everything down into arcs and beats. The romance I break down according to Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beat, while all other character relationships and plots get broken down according to Dan Wells’ great “Seven-Point Plot Structure” videos (look them up on YouTube!). I think mapping out the arcs for every relationship is key—something I realized early on in reading YA romance is that it’s not just about the main character’s relationship with their crush, it’s also their relationships with their friends, their parents, their enemies, etc. Having those relationships constantly in motion creates so much additional propulsion. By the end of the book, I want everyone to have changed and grown, both personally and in relation to each other.

Once I have all those beats at the meta level (i.e., “main character and crush decide it could never work” or “main character argues with parent about need for independence”), I color-code them, print them all out, spread them across my floor, and try to clump them into the smallest possible number of scenes. So a scene might include a swooning beat in the romance arc, but also conflict beats from the best friend and parent arcs, etc. And then I try to come up with a scene that could incorporate all of those. By having a bunch of different character arcs moving forward in the same scene, you can create something where every line is rich and important, and keeps the story barrelling along.

While I developed that process for novels, these days I use it for any narrative. For instance, in writing the new Starfinder: Angels of the Drift comic book series, even though it’s a science-fantasy action-adventure, the first thing I did when I pitched on the project was sit down with all of the characters in the party and figure out what emotional or philosophical problem each of them was wrestling with, and how they’d grow and change over the course of the story. No amount of cool alien scenery and weird magical technology can save you if the reader doesn’t care about your heroes.

(I’ve got a totally different process for writing game material, but that would require a whole separate interview…)

Image Credit: Michelle Burce

MRM: What do you think is important for authors writing for young adults to keep in mind while writing that might be different from authors writing for other age groups. Or is there anything different?

JLS: Stylistically, I didn’t change anything in moving from adult to YA. I wrote the book the way I wanted it, expecting that my editor would tell me to tone down the swearing or sex, but she didn’t bat an eye! While I was surprised and delighted, I think it’s also the only reasonable approach to such things. Any kid with a smartphone—or who has a friend with a smartphone—has easy access to pornography that would make Larry Flynt’s head explode. Worrying that they might read a book with an f-bomb—or see a loving, consensual sex scene reflecting the funny, awkward, joyful side of sex—is just silly.

I also decided early on that I wasn’t going to try to use any Gen Z slang that I don’t already use in my daily life. Nothing’s more offputting than somebody getting your slang wrong, and I think teens are used to translating old work into their current context and appreciating it for what it is.

Similarly, I sometimes see people complain about authors like, say, John Green for making his teenagers’ dialogue too witty and philosophical to be realistic. I think that’s dumb. Teen conversations are a lot deeper than adults give them credit for—and besides, fiction is about giving you the most interesting version of things. (It’s not like every adult you know talks like an Aaron Sorkin character.) So I very much tried to lean into that John Green feel. If John Green talked about dolphin masturbation.

James L. Sutter

MRM: If you could go back and tell teenage James Sutter something, what would it be?

JLS: Accomplishments are overrated. Your friends don’t care about what you’ve done—books you’ve published, shows you’ve played, awards you’ve won. They care about who you *are*—how you treat them and others. They might think it’s neat that you wrote a book, but they love you for that time you drove them to the hospital, or took them on a crazy adventure, or stayed up all night comforting them after a breakup. Kindness is way more attractive than winning, so worry less about showing people up, and more about showing up for people.

Also, relax. It’s gonna be fine.

MRM: What are you working on now? And what can we look forward to seeing from you next?

JLS: I just finished revisions on my next queer YA contemporary romance novel, The Ghost of Us, which is about a teenage ghost hunter—think Ten Things I Hate About You meets Ghost, by way of books like One Last Stop and Cemetery Boys. That’ll hopefully be out next summer!

In the meantime, my new Starfinder comic series, Starfinder: Angels of the Drift, is on shelves in your local comic shop right now! It stars a ragtag group of mercenaries racing to give faster-than-light travel to a previously uncontacted world, and I think it’s got a great mix of action, aliens, and feelings!

MM: Thanks so much!

JLS: Thank you! This was a delight!

Image Credit: Elise Koncsek

James L. Sutter is a co-creator of the best-selling Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games. He’s the author of the young adult romance novel Darkhearts, as well as the fantasy novels Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine. His short stories have appeared in Nightmare, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the #1 Amazon best-seller Machine of Death, and more. James lives in Seattle, where he’s performed with musical acts ranging from metalcore to musical theater.

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekMom and GeekDad on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!