Author Interview: Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
We sit down with the author of the sword and planet story Jiao Tu's Endeavour.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt lives on neither coast of the United States, but mostly in a haunted memory palace of his own design. His short fiction has appeared in numerous print and online venues. Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big in impact.
Read the latest installments of his blogged novel at http://jiaotusendeavour.wordpress.com, or contact him via Twitter: @haikufictiondju.
(Copied from Amazon.)
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On a multigenerational colony ship five hundred years off course, a lagomorph warrior must survive using only his wits and his sword.
Jiao Tu has been hired to rescue a young kidnapped mousling. A tip leads him to the Below, home to the engines that keep the world in motion. His mission has hardly begun when an encounter with a monstrous being plunges him into the midst of a struggle not only for control of the Below but for the world itself.
Teamed with an untested ratling warrior and the ratling leader of a gang of thugs, Jiao Tu must stop the monster and save the mousling—and the world—before it is too late.
This time I have for you an interview with author Donald Jacob Uitvlugt.
It was fun to pick his brain about his on-going web novel, and I think his enthusiasm really comes through in his answers!
You describe Jiao Tu’s Endeavour as “a furry sword and planet adventure.” The foreword of The Kidnapped Mousling by Anthony Perconti gives an idea of where it fits in the genre, and your afterword gives a glimpse into some of your favorite elements (ark ships!). Can you unpack any specific stories from this genre that made an impact on you as a writer?
Sword and Planet, and its sister subgenre, Planetary Romance, have deep roots in sci-fi as a genre, starting at least as early as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars stories. The Barsoom books were probably my first encounter with Sword and Planet, and I hope fans of Burroughs’s swashbuckling will find at least an echo in Jiao Tu’s adventures.
Also embedded in Jiao Tu’s DNA are the Eric Stark stories of Leigh Brackett and Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure series. Though less directly Sword and Planet, I would say that Andre Norton’s The Breed to Come is in the mix too.
What are some of the things you enjoy about anthropomorphic characters?
Several reasons come to mind. Anthropomorphic characters have a long literary tradition reaching at least as far back as Aesop and Native American myths through stories of Reynard the Fox, Hanuman, and Sun Wukong and beyond. In the contemporary West, a lot of us leave behind animal characters after grade school, and that seems a shame.
“Writers through the ages have used animal characters to explore what it means to be human”
Writers through the ages have used animal characters to explore what it means to be human, because anthropomorphic characters let us shift our perceptions at least a little bit. Read Cordwainer Smith, for example, where the animal people often help human beings relearn what it means to be human. I hope that Jiao Tu’s world echoes some of this aspect of Smith’s work.
Besides, furry characters are just fun!
Obviously, Jiao Tu resembles another beloved lagomorph warrior. Can you describe how Jiao Tu’s wuxia influence makes him unique? What other characteristics differentiate him from Usagi Yojimbo?
I have never denied that Usagi Yojimbo is in the background of Jiao Tu as a character, but Stan Sakai has Usagi very firmly rooted in medieval Japan and the samurai’s bushido code. In choosing wuxia as a model for Jiao Tu’s adventures, the resulting demimonde of the Endeavour is more closely based on the jianghu world of Water Margin or of Louis Cha’s Legend of the Condor Heroes. While Jiao Tu has connections to the elite classes of his world, he is not a samurai like Usagi. And while there is overlap between bushido and the xia of wuxia, I think there’s a tendency for the samurai code to be more strongly based on class. Jiao Tu feels more at home among the farmers of the Mid decks and the small traders of Lesser Middlesea.
There are more superficial differences. Usagi wields a katana, Jiao Tu a jian. Usuagi is a white rabbit wearing a kimono, Jiao Tu is a harlequin rabbit wearing a tunic and trousers inspired by traditional Chinese clothing. The sword and clothing come from choosing a Chinese-inspired setting, but his harlequin fur pattern is a more deliberate choice on my part. As a writer, I’m fascinated by characters who inhabit liminal spaces, and I’ve always envisioned Jiao Tu to be such a character. He tries to live his life in black and white terms, even though the world around him threatens to descend into a muddled grey. Though this is perhaps a way the two rabbits are similar in spite of their differences.
And I don’t see Jiao Tu running into turtles any time soon…
This is your first serialized project. How does Jiao Tu’s Endeavour compare with the other stories you’ve written?
That’s a very good question. In the afterword of my book, I go into some of the story of how I started writing it in the first place. The serial nature of the story has actually helped me greatly in working on this project. Although The Kidnapped Mousling is a 50,000 word novel, I wrote it in chunks of 600-800 words—enough for a blog post of readable length. This made it feel a lot more like writing a series of interconnected flash fiction pieces, rather than slogging through a novel, or even trying to draft a 4,000 word short story.
There was a bigger learning curve figuring out how to turn a series of 72 blog posts into a book. For various reasons (not least of all, lack of available funds), I did all of the editing and design work on the paperback except for the cover illustration. But now that I’ve done it once, I have a template for all future volumes.
For what it’s worth, I consider Jiao Tu’s Endeavour to be the best thing I’ve ever written, but I’ll let the readers be the judge.
How has Jiao Tu’s Endeavour fit into your ideal of “haiku fiction”?
My one phrase explanation of haiku fiction is “small stories, big impact,” and I hope that Jiao Tu’s Endeavour fits that definition for all of its readers. The story has a tight focus, told strictly from Jiao Tu’s point of view. It focuses as much or more on people who might be considered “spear carriers” in a more traditional fantasy world than the high and mighty. To understand what’s going on in the story depends in part on the readers being able to read between the lines and piece things together at the same time as (or even before) Jiao Tu does. And just like a haiku poet can take a set season word and evoke something new with it, so I try to take a set of tropes and try to create something new in Jiao Tu’s Endeavour.
“small stories, big impact”
Would you share a bit about your values and how they influence your stories?
I am a Catholic Christian, and while I don’t consider Jiao Tu’s Endeavour to be a “Catholic” story, my faith has definitely influenced the tale in perhaps subtle ways. The broad Christian tradition speaks of what are called “noble pagans”–individuals who either lived before the coming of Christ or before the Gospel reached their lands and who, in spite of not hearing the message of Christ still lived lives of virtue. They did so by responding to the calls toward goodness that did exist in their cultures, and since all goodness comes from God, without perhaps knowing it, they were responding to God.
Even when my story was in its earliest stages, I always planned Jiao Tu to be a noble pagan in this sense. He is concerned about right and wrong in a deep manner not always shared by his fellow residents of the Endeavour. I hope that one of the strengths of The Kidnapped Mousling is that it takes a character of this sort of integrity and puts him into a series of circumstances that tests his ability to always act in accord with his code.
What is your favorite scene in The Kidnapped Mousling?
It is a little hard to pick just one scene, especially trying to keep this interview as spoiler free as possible, but if forced to choose…it would probably be the scene where Lord Zabad’s ritual is finally completed, but without the results he expected…
Black Fang begins the story distant with a bloodthirsty streak but grows in clarity for Jiao Tu and tends to be sympathetic to his cause. As the two continue building their relationship, how will their characters impact one another?
Ah, but that would be telling!
More seriously, I have not done as much with Black Fang in Episode 2 that I probably should have done, but never fear. I will rectify that in future episodes. The mystery of what exactly Jiao Tu’s “sword” is lies at the core of very many parts of the story I still want to tell.
In “The Festival of Sweets,” Ashmira and Zahra ask Jiao Tu if he kills monsters. The monsters in this collection tended towards the phantom sort, but are there other kinds aboard Endeavour?
As the subtitle of Episode 2 suggests, there most definitely are other sorts of monsters roaming the decks of the Endeavour. Sometimes these monsters have a science-fictional basis rather than a preternatural basis. Sometimes the monsters might not actually be monsters at all, but the return of something very old yet not familiar to most of the inhabitants of the Endeavour, one of the “Beasts that Were,” perhaps.
“I will reach the end of the series long before I run out of potential monsters…”
Since I chose to characterize the Endeavour as a joint Chinese-Indian venue, I feel like I have several vast traditions of folklore I can call on for future stories. I will reach the end of the series long before I run out of potential monsters…
Episode 2: The Yaogu Insects is already being released on your website with a book format slated for release later this year, and Episode 3 has been teased as well. What can readers look forward to as the series progresses?
As the series progresses, Jiao Tu will continue to walk by his personal code in the midst of a world with an uncertain future. The readers will see more of the Endeavour, they will see Farrah grow as a warrior and as a person. New friends and enemies will join the warrior and his apprentice on the stage, some with only small parts and some with recurring roles.
Contrary to, say, certain trends in comic books and comic book movies, I don’t think every series needs to have an origin story. We will meet figures from Jiao Tu’s past, but the focus of the series as a whole will be on the lagomorph’s increasing awareness of the “game” being played around him for the future of his world and how he chooses to take part or not.
The Kidnapped Mousling explored the Below, while the short stories gave readers an idea of the Mid. Can we look forward to seeing more of Endeavour in later episodes?
Most definitely! I set The Kidnapped Mousling in the Below because that’s a part of his world that Jiao Tu is less familiar with. The reader and the lagomorph are discovering the Below together. But now that the readers have been introduced to Jiao Tu’s world, each subsequent story arc will take them to a new area of the ship. This starts already with Episode 2, set in a fairly typical farming deck, but there is a *lot* of the Endeavour yet to explore. I discover more aspects of it myself as I write. But there are a few stops I know for certain the journey will take us.
Readers of the bonus story, “The Last Oracle,” already have seen that the Endeavour is bisected by a large body of saltwater, the Middlesea. Two large hubs of commerce have grown up around the sea, taking their name from it: Greater Middlesea and Lesser Middlesea. Episode 3 will have several sections in Lesser Middlesea and on the water itself.
Beyond Episode 3, the plans are a little more nebulous, but I do hope to write several more installments. I know I want to show readers the Schola, and the city of Central that lies around it. And astute readers will likely have already realized that the phrase “Builders above and Pit below” is not just an oath. He’s already been to the Below. I plan at some point to show Jiao Tu journeying to the Above…
What do you hope your readers take away from Jiao Tu’s Endeavour and The Kidnapped Mousling in particular?
Short answer: I want readers to have fun! If readers don’t enjoy the story, then I’m not doing my job as a fiction author.
“I want readers to have fun!”
I hope that readers enjoy visiting the world that I’ve built for them. As I’ve already said, there’s a lot more of the Endeavour yet to explore, and as long as readers are still reading, I plan to write more of Jiao Tu’s adventures for quite some time to come. I hope that readers find the lagomorph an interesting character who gets into unusual intrigues from which he has to extricate himself without breaking his moral code. And perhaps readers will find themselves asking the question with Jiao Tu,
“What should a single being of honor do, when his entire society has forgotten its reason for existence?”