- Nikky Lee
10 Questions with David M. James
David M. James is an avid writer and role-player, living in Canberra, Australia’s capital city. With Bachelor and Masters degrees in Education, David teaches computer games, programming and physics at a senior college in Canberra. When not in front of a class, David enjoys writing role-playing games and LARPs for gaming conventions, something he has been doing since 1986. David also helps run the Phenomenon Games Convention held in Canberra each year. In 2021, he published his first novel, Wingless, an urban fantasy about a group of Angels banished from heaven. His debut novel explored the concepts of free will, family and friendship.
His second novel, Born Without Wings, continues the story of one of the Wingless fifteen years after the events in the first book. A third book in the series is now also being written.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself! Where do you call home and what do you write?
At heart, I am a believer of stories. Every one of my students has a story they are experiencing, and many need a safe place to tell those stories. As a teacher it is my responsibility to create that safe space. I have been teaching for just over thirty years now, and I revel in the fact that not a single year goes by when at least one of my students teaches me something new about myself. Currently, I teach computer game design and programming to Year 11 and 12 students at a college in Canberra where I get to help them turn their story ideas into reality in an interactive medium.
Gaming is where my writing began. I've been an avid player of RPGs from the original Dungeons & Dragons to bespoke systems and worlds. I have been writing roleplaying games for conventions for over 35 years now, ranging from small five player tabletop games through to huge fifty player freeforms, complete with costuming. I'd create the characters, their backgrounds, personalities, drives and ambitions, and then also write the plot and world that they find themselves in. Populate the world with a host of NPCs (Non-Player Characters) and then let the players loose for three hours. It is incredibly fun and fulfilling to watch people play and enjoy themselves in a world you have created.
When I finally worked up enough courage to try writing a novel, I discovered that this kind if writing is completely addictive. I love science fiction and fantasy, but I find myself drawn to the speculative fiction or urban fantasy genres the most in my writing. Introducing the magical or supernatural into our ordinary modern world is what drives me the most.
2. What drew you to that particular genre?
The urban fantasy genre is something I've explored in the games I've written as it is great for allowing players to engage with all kinds of different characters and situations. It works well for new and experienced players, as most of the world their characters inhabit is the one they recognise and live in every day, just with an added twist to make it special. That twist could result from cybertechnology, magic, supernatural, mad science or any combination that helps to tell a story that takes them out of the ordinary for a few hours.
3. What’s your best known work?
My best known work among the roleplaying community would have to be the games I've written over the years, although that did end up resulting in a ready-made group of readers for Wingless. The second book in the trilogy, Born Without Wings, is due to come out towards the end of May this year. The third one, Learning to Fly is currently being written with an eye to a 2024 release.
4. What inspired you to write it?
Like most of my ideas, Wingless started off life as a roleplaying scenario. I was stuck in a less than inspiring professional development ‘opportunity’ and started to think about writing something that explored what free-will might look like, if the story was told from the point of view of a group of people who did not believe they have it.
5. Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter, pantser or somewhere in between? How do you research?
I like to plot out the bare bones of the story, stretching over four acts. This kind of planning works nicely for me whether I am working on a game or a novel. What I find, however, is I get about a quarter of the way into writing whatever it happens to be when the characters sit me down and tell me just how stupid my plan is and how they'd never do something like that. They then they proceed to explain to me what they are going to do instead. So, while I do some research to begin with, it often needs to be thrown out part way through and started again. I tend to listen to the characters when they do this, as their ideas are usually far better than my original ones were.
6. What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve researched for your writing?
I like to place my urban fantasy in our world, so for Wingless I needed to know where the most polluted place on the planet was. With Born Without Wings, it was the quietest place on Earth. The various answers I found to both questions were fascinating, but I won’t spoil why I needed to know this.
7. What’s the most personal story/scene you’ve written and why?
The most personal thing I've ever written was a farewell letter to my grandmother, which I read as the eulogy at her funeral. She fostered my love of fantasy and fiction, and showed me just how an empowered, strong, independent woman could change the world. And how to do it with style.
For general consumption, however, I wrote a series of characters for a supernatural horror game in 2010 that were the typical high school outcasts. They needed to band together in order to get through the last year of school without having their souls crushed, oh, and to save the world into the bargain. Being known as a nerd in school myself, writing those characters touched on many feelings and memories I had thought I had safely locked away.
8. Who are your literary influences? In what way?
I am completely enraptured with Neil Gaiman's turn of phrase and imagination. Becky Chambers writes heart-filled stories that just have me begging for more and has a talent for building tension without needing to bring in apocalyptic circumstances. And the scripts of J. Michael Straczynski have a soul to them that is truly beautiful and can build a character arc full of growth, emotion and enlightenment.
9. What books are on your bedside table right now?
Right now, I have Becky Chambers' A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, which I have long ago finished, but I keep going back to read bits. On top of that is Andrezej Sapkowski's The Tower of the Swallow, which I am about halfway through, and Ben Aaronovitch's Lies Sleeping, which I plan to read next. Unless something else catches my eye between now and then.
10. Last and most important, where can we find your books/stories?
Since I self-published Wingless, Three Ravens Publishing in the USA have decided to publish the whole trilogy. So the original book is being taken down from the various websites and is being re-released as a second edition with a new cover and new audio . The rest of the series will follow soon too. It has been an amazing, and terrifying, journey from self-publishing to signing with a traditional publisher, and I'm still not sure that my head hasn't stopped spinning.
As of now, the links to the self-published edition will be up for about another three to four weeks and then will be replaced with the new edition. You can find the links on my website, and I'll be updating it when the new editions come out!