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A Conversation with Stephen C. Merlino, author of ‘The Jack of Souls’

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Stephen C. MerlinoStephen C. Merlino lives in Seattle, WA, where he writes, plays, and teaches high school English. He lives with the world’s most talented and desirable woman, two fabulous children, and three attack chickens.

Growing up in Seattle drove Stephen indoors for eight months of the year. Before the age of video games, that meant he read a lot. At the age of eleven he discovered the stories of J.R.R. Tolkein and fell in love with fantasy.

Summers and rare sunny days he spent with friends in wooded ravines or on the beaches of Puget Sound, building worlds in the sand, and fighting orcs and wizards with driftwood swords.

About the time a fifth reading of The Lord of the Rings failed to deliver the old magic, Stephen attended the University of Washington and fell in love with Chaucer and Shakespeare and all things English. Sadly, the closest he got to England back then was The Unicorn Pub on University Way, which wasn’t even run by an Englishman: it was run by a Scot named Angus. Still, he studied there, and as he sampled Angus’s weird ales, and devoured the Unicorn’s steak & kidney pie (with real offal!), he developed a passion for Scotland, too.

In college, he fell in love with writing, and when a kindly professor said of a story he’d written, “You should get that published!” Stephen took the encouragement literally, and spent the next years trying. The story remains unpublished, but the quest to develop it introduced Stephen to the world of agents (the story ultimately had two), and taught him much of craft and the value of what Jay Lake would call, “psychotic persistence.”

Add to that his abiding love of nerds–those who, as Sarah Vowel defines it, “go too far and care too much about a subject”–and you have Stephen Merlino in a nutshell.

Stephen is the 2014 PNWA winner for Fantasy.

He is also the 2014 SWW winner for Fantasy.

His novel, The Jack of Souls is in its fourth month in the top ten on Amazon’s Children’s Fantasy Sword & Sorcery Best Seller list, and among the top three in Coming-of-Age.

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About the Book:

An outcast rogue named Harric must break a curse laid on his fate or die by his nineteenth birthday.

As his dead-day approaches, nightmares from the spirit world stalk him and tear at his sanity; sorcery eats at his soul.

The Jack of Souls 2To survive, he’ll need more than his usual tricks. He’ll need help—and a lot of it—but on the kingdom’s lawless frontier, his only allies are other outcasts. One of these outcasts is Caris, a mysterious, horse-whispering runaway, intent upon becoming the Queen’s first female knight. The other is Sir Willard—ex-immortal, ex-champion, now addicted to pain-killing herbs and banished from the court.

With their help, Harric might keep his curse at bay. But for how long?

And both companions bring perils and secrets of their own: Caris bears the scars of a troubled past that still hunts her; Willard is at war with the Old Ones, an order of insane immortal knights who once enslaved the kingdom. The Old Ones have returned to murder Willard and seize the throne from his queen. Willard is both on the run from them, and on one final, desperate quest to save her.

Together, Harric and his companions must overcome fanatical armies, murderous sorcerers, and powerful supernatural foes.

Alone, Harric must face the temptation of a forbidden magic that could break his curse, but cost him the only woman he’s ever loved.

***

A tale of magic, mischief, and the triumph of tricksters.

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Q: Welcome to Beyond the Books, Stephen. Can we start out by telling us whether you are published for the first time or are you multi-published?

The Jack of Souls is my first novel, and first in a fantasy series.

Q: When you were published for the first time, which route did you go – mainstream, small press, vanity published or self-published and why or how did you choose this route?

After years of courting agents and editors, with small success, I began entering The Jack of Souls in literary contests. It was finalist in a number of contests, then it placed, and in 2014 it actually won the Pacific Northwest Writers Association award for fantasy (PNWA is a very large competition), and a month later it won the Southwest Writers award for fantasy. Additionally, Wattpad asked if they could make it a Featured novel.

It started to dawn on me that the only people that really matter in determining if a book is any good is the reader, and if readers liked the book enough to buy it and recommend it to others, then maybe I didn’t need an agent’s blessing after all.

So I ran a Kickstarter (a TON of work and a TON of fun—met supportive and generous people from 17 different countries), found a great artist (Jakub Rozalski), hired editors and formatters, and in the space of a few months I had ebook, paperback, and hardback up on Amazon.

I am extremely grateful to report that within a couple months it appeared in the top ten of several Amazon ebook bestseller lists. It kind of floored me, actually. Turns out, fantasy readers like it! Woohoo!

Today, it has a 4.5-star rating with over 50 reviews, and recently it received a 5-star rating from Midwest Book Review. I could not be more humbled and thankful for that. Indie publishing turned out to be a fantastic decision for me. I’m finally reaching readers and hearing back from them.

Q: How long did it take you to get published once you signed the contract?

It took me maybe three months to publish it. It was a lot of work—don’t get me wrong—but three months isn’t long at all. I understand that the big five corporate publishing houses take upwards of a year to publish a book; if I’m not mistaken, a year is fast for them. They have a lot more people involved at every level, choosing, asking, seeking permissions from higher-ups, making decisions, back-and-forthing, etc., so it isn’t surprising. When it’s just me orchestrating a team of folks I hire, things are bound to move a lot faster.

Q: How did it make you feel to become published for the first time and how did you celebrate?

I felt relieved! Finally, I could move on to the second book in the series, The Knave of Souls. I aim to release it at the end of August 2015. J

To celebrate, my wife and I took the kids out to dinner, rode go-carts, and played laser tag in a fog-lit maze. Awesome.

Q: What was the first thing you did as for as promotion when you were published for the first time?

I bought a copy of The Book Reviewer Yellow Pages and started sending queries to get bloggers to review the book. Turns out, it’s a lot like querying agents, but with (for me) a lot more positive results. Book bloggers are another fun group of people to work with.

Q: Since you’ve been published, how have you grown as a writer and now a published author?

I’ve gained weight. No, really. Something had to go, and it was exercise. Publishing and publicizing is a whole other layer of work to be done on top of writing, my teaching job, and family life.

Q: What has surprised or amazed you about the publishing industry as a whole?

There is so much creativity and love of the craft in this industry! It feeds the soul. Good people, sharing information, learning together about something we love.

Q: What is the most rewarding thing about being a published author?

Reaching readers and hearing from them is the best thing about publishing a novel. Hands down. Writing can be such a lonely occupation. To reach a reader and hear an echo coming back from the void, that’s affirmation and connection. In that moment it goes from monologue to dialogue, from solitude to community, from “Sound and fury signifying nothing” to “Hey, that’s pretty good. Let’s talk about that!”

For me that’s where it’s at.

Q: Any final words for writers who dream of being published one day?

Read a lot. Write a lot. Find a good critique group so you can learn from other writers and readers. Refine. Revise. Repeat. J

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