The First Glimmers

Howard Andrew Jones’s debut historical fantasy novel, The Desert of Souls (Thomas Dunne Books 2011), was widely acclaimed by influential publications like Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly, where it was labeled “a splendid flying-carpet ride.” It made Kirkus’ New and Notable list for 2011, and was on both Locus’s Recommended Reading List and the Barnes and Noble Best Fantasy Releases list of 2011. Additionally, The Desert of Souls was a finalist for the prestigious Compton Crook Award, and a featured selection of The Science Fiction Book Club. Its sequel, The Bones of the Old Ones, will be available tomorrow. He is hard at work on a third historical fantasy novel as well as a sequel to his Pathfinder Tales novel, Plague of Shadows.

I’d been writing short stories about my 8th century Arabian adventurers Dabir and Asim for ten years when I decided to take the plunge and write a novel about them. I’d been thinking about writing a novel centered around the characters for a long time, A.) because I really enjoyed writing their exploits and B.) because I’d consistently sold every story about them that I’d written, which was a significant improvement over my other writing efforts.

But I didn’t jump in without deliberation. I knew interest in historicals was said to be waning, and I wasn’t sure how a Dabir and Asim novel would be shelved. It would historical BUT contain fantastic elements. And it would have mystery, and horror. In this era of niche publishing, how on Earth would it be marketed, and what publisher would be interested in it? The more I thought about writing the novel, the worse the idea seemed, and so I put it off. In retrospect, maybe that was good, because it allowed me to continue my researches into ancient Arabia, which I was doing for fun. And it gave me more time to hone my craft.

Finally, after collecting another round of rejections for a secondary world fantasy I’d been shopping around, I took a good look in the mirror. I would be turning forty soon, and was wondering if I’d managed to delude myself. Maybe I was really only writing to please myself. And if I was doing that, why not draft the work I was really wanting to write? The one I was most inspired to write?

So I put an outline together, sat down, and got to work. I didn’t have a publisher or an agent in mind, I just worked on the book. It was a spectacularly bad plan in a lot of ways, except for three things. Because of my enthusiasm for the period and literature, I had already done a lot of the ground work as far as research. Because I’d been writing about the central characters for years, I already knew who they were. And because I wasn’t worried about the market or the audience, I was free to just sit back and write the kind of tale that would most please myself.

And boy, did I have fun. I firmly believe that if you’re not having fun writing it, people aren’t going to have fun reading it, because that’s surely been true in my own experience. Maybe one day I’ll hear that Fritz Leiber and Roger Zelazny hated writing of Lankhmar and Amber, but I doubt it.

I had one other thing going for me. Because I’d been working in the industry for a number of years, I had a lot of editor and writer friends. One of them is the gifted Scott Oden, who I’d met partly because of our shared interest in the historicals of Harold Lamb but mostly because his first book (Men of Bronze) had knocked me out. I wrote Scott to ask if he’d be interested in writing the introduction to one of the Harold Lamb collections I was editing for Bison Books, and we struck up a correspondence. As writers do, we occasionally exchanged manuscripts for feedback.

And one late night, when I meant to send him a short story I was struggling over, I accidentally sent him the first third of The Desert of Souls. You might be thinking, sure, wink wink, nudge nudge, but the truth is that I don’t share rough drafts. Ask my wife and my editors. I hate anyone seeing them. Scott was effusive about how much he enjoyed the wrong work I’d sent him. He told his editor about it, then told me that his editor wished to see the book as soon as I was done.

It was a nice shot in the arm, but when I finished the book and Scott dutifully sent it on to Peter Wolverton at Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s) I fully expected to get a rejection. That’s how things had worked so far. A rejection wasn’t what I wanted, but I was prepared.

About a month later I received an e-mail from Thomas Dunne Books. My pulse pounding despite myself, I opened it, and saw to my surprise that instead of a form rejection or a personal note explaining what the publisher had liked but why they had to pass, Pete provided me with a phone number and asked me to call that morning.

I got up, made myself a cup of tea, and drank it slowly. I figured this was a danged funny way to deliver a rejection, and that this was likely to be the kind of conversation I’d been longing to hear for a couple of decades. My tea finished, I punched in the numbers and made the call.

The next thing I knew, I’d been offered a book deal.

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