Q&A with Jamie de Valen – Part 1

[WARNING: The post may contain spoilers.]

Today’s interview is an author who won the 2009 GayAuthors Reader’s Choice Awards for Best Non-GA Story. He has written stories titled Fathers and Sons, Hosanna, but is best known for his story The Scrolls of Icaria. Today’s author is Jamie de Valen. I present part 1 of 3.

Q. Tell me a little about yourself.

I live in Brussels, Belgium. My current work involves being a teacher, university professor and working with some of the institutions that comprise the European Union. I also do a small amount of work for private industry. My background is in assessment and applied linguistics, so all of that dull information should cause everyone to take a long yawn of boredom. My apologies lol.

But I’m not a person who defines himself by his work. I have an active private life, which is probably the most important part of my existence. I enjoy many things including travel and culture. I love music, film, theater, museums and exhibitions. I also enjoy sharing time with friends. I’m very much interested in art and architecture, and I love history and science. I guess the reality of my life is that I simply love to learn new things from any quarter. And as a teacher I love to share that learning in what I hope is a positive way.

But maybe the most important thing about me that I’d like to mention is the fact that I live a fairly normal every day life. I’m keen to point out that fact, because as an openly gay man, I think it’s important to let people see how common and mundane my life is – and I mean that in a positive way. There are so many places in the world where many people think being gay has this aura of being so different, freaky and weird from everyone else, when the truth is we’re just as everyday boring as the next person. And I think it’s a powerful, truthful and important image to project. It’s easy to fear or create negative images of something you don’t understand or aren’t exposed to. The reality is that when open-minded people are confronted with the truth they can and often do change their opinions. So in my normal life I try to project that image, since it’s a genuine and truthful one.

The fact that Jamie’s first encounter with humans at the beginning of The Scrolls is a negative one, simply because he looks different and therefore must be dangerous, is an attempt by me in my writing to address this: difference vs similarity theme that mankind has always struggled with. The trap quickly becomes: if it’s the same as me it’s good, if it’s different from me it’s bad. That’s a dangerous POV.

Q. What inspires you to write?

My first inspiration in writing is that I love words. I guess that’s why linguistics and languages interest me. But more importantly, I think that I’ve always been amazed at the power of words and their ability to make an impact on people. It’s not for any small reason that dictators and totalitarian governments want to control words. They fear them as much as they fear great armies, and that’s something to really think about.

From the time I was a young boy I’ve loved both reading and writing. I discovered books at an early age. I was lucky to have parents and grandparents read to me from the time I was born. As I got older I wanted to read myself… and I did. I read almost anything I could get my hands on. From there I started to write and I was amazed at how my simple words could sometimes cause people to laugh, or cry, or even get angry. It was a powerful (and humbling) feeling – it still is and intimately that’s my greatest motivation to write. I simply love telling stories.

Finally there’s always been a bit of an activist in me. Social justice and issues that involve human rights and freedoms are very important to me. It’s reflected in my work. Many of the things I write about have that underlying theme of equality, fairness and social justice woven into them.

I’m currently sweating over a new work that like TSOI carries these same themes.

Q. What are your favourite books?

I have many, and I also have my favourite authors. But of my favourite books aren’t necessarily written by my favourite authors, and some of my favourite authors haven’t written some of my favourite books. Does this sound confusing? I’m sure it does.

Sometimes a book on it’s own will just make an impact on me. Other times the skill of an author or what they stand for will have more of an impact than any of their individual works in particular.

Though to answer the question, I will give my top ten. But there are so many more:

1. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

2. The Source by James Michener

3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin

5. The entire Les Rougon Macquart series by Emile Zola (this itself is a 20-volume cycle).

6. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

7. Treatise on the Gods by H.L. Mencklen

8. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

9. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

10. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I’d recommend any of these books to anyone. They aren’t snobbish or elitist, but in my opinion eye opening and life changing. I could give so many more, but I’ll stop with the above list of 10.

Q. What is the most thoughtful feedback you have received from a reader?

That’s a rather hard one to answer, because I’ve gotten some very nice feedback from so many people over the years and I’ve appreciated all of it so much. I can’t thank enough the many readers of TSOI who have written. And I always appreciate their mail. But a few stand out:

1. The most helpful – from AJ who, after writing it, I chose to become my editor. He wrote it shortly after I began posting The Scrolls. It was through that mail that I gained a wonderful editor that has helped make the story so much the better.

2. The most encouraging – from a young straight teen who wrote to tell me that he and his equally straight friends enjoy the story and have in fact used some of the scenarios and characters of TSOI in their role-playing. That mail showed me that the story had appeal outside my initial target audience. And it gave me hope that maybe we are making a little progress in the world towards more acceptance of who we are.

3. The most bizarre (or maybe funny) – from a reader to wrote to tell me that he called off of work for two days to read the entire work that I’d posted up to that time. He also mentioned that in over 20 years of working he’d only done that once before when he was hospitalized for 2 days with phenomena. I was completely gobsmacked.

4. The most touching – from a man who wrote the following: “My birthday was yesterday, I turned 93, I sincerely hope to be around for the next books.” I hope so too. It makes me want to write faster…

Q. Do your characters represent anyone in your life? Especially Jamie or Nic?

There are a number of ways for me to answer this question, and all of them are true and correct.

As a writer all of my characters ultimately spring forth from my mind. It’s part of the fun of being a writer – you get to play god in some way. You get to create and order your characters around. You have the power of life or death over them and you can make their lives easy or hard, heaven or hell. Many of my characters are just that – characters I’ve created. There are so many in the story that I have to create them from scratch… or at least my mind. I have many friends and acquaintances… but not enough to populate the whole universe of Icaria.

But no one works in a vacuum. We all bring other influences to our writing and some of that comes from our associations with others.

Some of the traits of my characters are influenced by others… notably some of their personality and character traits. We all know people who are kind or smart, good or bad, patient or impatient, and some of that certainly influences me. I sometimes will recall a trait or traits of a person I have known who might have had a fiery temper, or was lazy, or funny and irreverent. That helps me in creating a character.

Finally there are some characters that are based more on real people. I must confess that the person most like me in the story would probably be Charles. Jamie is actually an amalgam of a number of people, so he’s not based on any one person in particular. But Nic is. Niklas is based on someone very special and important to me in my life. Miro and Cody are also based on people I’ve known and have been close to.

It’s not always easy to create believable and sympathetic characters readers identify with but I try my best to do so. Hopefully sometimes I even succeed.

Q. What is on your favourite iPod play list?

My musical tastes are all over the place. On top of that, I’m constantly changing songs. But pulling out my iPod and looking at my current favourite list here’s what’s on it right now:

1. Beethoven’s 9th
2. Bruce Springsteen
3. Counting Crows
4. Edith Piaf
5. Elvis Costello
6. Green Day
7. Indochine
8. Jacques Brel
9. Johnny Cash
10. Last of the Mohicans (movie soundtrack)
11. Laura Fabian
12. Le Roi Danse (movie soundtrack)
13. Melissa Etheridge
14. Oasis
15. Pet Shop Boys
16. Pink Floyd
17. Radiohead
18. Rammstein
19. Red Hot Chili Peppers
20. Rufus Wainwright

(There are multiple songs from each artist listed above, a full list would be far too long.)

But I also listen to a lot of podcasts and I’m a big fan BBC and NPR podcasts along with This American Life… which I highly recommend for any writer to listen to.

I’m also a big downloader of audio books. Since I write a lot, reading is important to me, but I don’t always have the time so a good way to keep up is with audio books. Riding the metro, walking in the city (which I do a lot of) and workouts at the gym let me listen to audio books without having to have a book directly in front of me.

So on that front I’m currently rereading (listening to) The complete Wheel of Time series by Robert Jorden.

Q. Are you married or single?

Single

Q. Tell me a little bit about how The Scrolls of Icaria got started?

I’ve always been a big fan of science fiction, and fantasy. As a young boy some of my first books were the works of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ben Bova etc. I also read Lord of the Rings at the age of 13. They all influenced my love for the genre.

When I conceived of The Scrolls of Icaria I wanted to write something in the genre I loved the most. I also wanted to write an epical work that would span multiple volumes.

I was very keen not to simply writing a gay-themed story. There are many good ones out there, dealing with many of the big themes that affect the gay community. Therefore, I decided to write a story where some of the characters (the Icarians) would have same sex relationships, but that would not be the main point of the story.

I really wanted to cover the main themes of equality vs inequality, justice vs injustice, tolerance vs intolerance, good vs evil. I wanted to create a world where my characters weren’t loved or hated because of their sexual orientation… it was just something that was. The Icarians are really feared because they represent a threat to the balance of power of a long established world, but then much of what I write can be looked at through modern day eyes and the struggle many people… including gays… go through.

I worked hard to develop a plot. I also created an outline and began some character sketches. I’m more of a controlled writer. I don’t just write and see where things take me. I’m more of a planner so most of the story was conceived before I wrote one word of it. I already have the ending in mind and I’m writing towards it. I also came up with some of the major themes of the story and one by one have been including them in the story.

Most of my writing and ideas involves stories that have same sex character relationships, but that is not the main thrust of the story. Just like me in my own life trying to show the normality of being gay, I want my stories to reflect that same theme.

It’s important for me to present whole, well-formed, self-confident gay characters who would easily serve as role models in real life. Maybe Jamie and Nic have wings in my story, but there are many young men and women who are gay and lesbian who are just like Nic and Jamie. Strong intelligent, productive members of society and an asset to the communities they live in. I want my readers to feel this and that’s one reason for the telling of the tale on the way I tell it.

Q. Is there another gay online author to whom you look up to, and if so, why?

There are many people writing right now who are amazingly talented and doing a fantastic job. They save me a lot of money at the bookstore, since I can access their work on line. I like so many of them, but I have a few favorites. They are:

(in alphabetical order)

1. Comicality – I don’t think I have to say why. Many would agree with me. His writing is easy to read. It’s fun. And quite simply I enjoy it. I don’t think I need any other reasons. I read most of his pieces, and I especially like the Gone from Daylight series. It’s clever and imaginative and quite original. The only thing I really want him to do is finish one of his stories before he starts any new ones… lol… just kidding Com. I know you like new projects, but a new chapter of GWD once a month would be nice… hint… hint…

2. Duncan Ryder – both a friend and an excellent writer. Duncan is by far a master of character development. Everybody’s Wounded and his current How the Light Gets In are simply masterful in showing any writer how to create genuine and believable characters. I’ve certainly learned a few things from him.

3. Emulated – he’s a new young talent, but already a very good writer, and if he continues writing (which I hope), I only see him getting better and better. I can’t recommend him enough. I enjoyed his story A Vulcan’s Love and I’m currently enjoying his latest American Differences. He writes with a fresh style and he takes a refreshing approach to his work. He’s the kind of young writer who sees things from a modern and current perspective. His writing has imagination and is always a pleasure to read.

4. Mark Arbour – I’m a sucker for historical fiction. Mark not only writes extremely well, but also does his homework. His stories are intelligently planned and he does a lot of research. Add in great writing and I think it’s the perfect combination. I’d read his grocery lists if he’d publish them.

5.Michael Aaram – I find both his Ruritania and Preacher Series great reading. I also like how he’s created a broad tapestry by tying them together – that in itself takes skill and forethought. It’s something I admire in a writer.

There are others but if I continue my list will grow very long. I’m amazed at some of the talent out there. I think online writing in the gay genre has really grown by leaps and bounds and I like the direction and maturity much of it is taking.

Q. If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?

I liked Comicality’s answer on this one. But since he reminded me of the taxman I’m going to insist that you give me MY million after taxes.

I know the politically correct answer is that I’d give it away to the poor or something altruistic like that. The reality is I’d invest it in something safe and stable, and I’d do it for one simple reason. I’d use only the interest to live off of and do the one thing that I love the most… write! I don’t personally need a lot to live on. I’m pretty frugal, I’m not a luxury kind of guy, so the interest would carry me through.

I never have enough time in the day to write, and I have so many stories in my head just fighting to get out. I would easily write 8 hours every day. My goal would be to produce at least one major book a year, and maybe a few short stories or short novella’s. Since I’d have the interest from the million to live off of I wouldn’t worry about publishing. I’d continue to post my work on line FREE. That would be my gift to others.

Then after I was gone from this world, I’d gift it equally to ACLU, Amnesty International, the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Institute, and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

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