Zak Zyz has worn many hats in his life: welder, electrician, roofer, cryptologic linguist, and, currently, systems administrator. He hosts The Surreal Symphony, a late-night call-in show, and Strategically Correct, a board gaming society in Brooklyn, New York. Now, he’s a first-time novelist, with his epic fantasy Xan & Ink having just been published. The writer and artist was kind enough to talk about his book, writing, and a few other things.
Geeks of Doom: What’s the elevator pitch for Xan & Ink?
Zak Zyz: An unknown pestilence is massacring families on the frontier. Four exiled adventurers journey into the ink-black heart of the jungle in search of answers. No one gets out clean.
Set in a savage and sinister world of witches, thieves, black magic, and forbidden love, Xan & Ink is a vivid plunge into a seductive new fantasy.
Geeks of Doom: How long have you worked on the book?
Zak Zyz: Four years! The titular character Ink was originally written for a D&D campaign. The very first idea in the book was the tinks, spine-flinging insect pests whose young gestate in their prey. I had the idea of people collecting tink spines and using them as arrowheads while hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Of course, if you want to write about arrows, you need a bowman, and the legendary ranger-scholar Xan stepped onto the scene in his beetle-shell cloak.
Geeks of Doom: Did you plot the book or are you a pantser?
Zak Zyz: Very much freestyle. I have a general idea of where I want the plot of a book to go; however, I think it’s important not to overdo it. I hope that the excitement and sense of discovery I’m feeling as I complete a book and find out what’s happening to the characters are also felt by the readers.
It’s definitely a tradeoff, you don’t get a tight, perfectly paced book like that, but I’m happy to trade that for the few indelible moments that miraculously manifest when you’re free to write anything. I’ll always take a sluggish book with one amazing image that sears into me forever over one that’s structurally perfect but that I forget a year after I read it.
Geeks of Doom: What have you learned writing your first novel? What were the biggest challenges?
Zak Zyz: This book drove home just how critical beta readers are. We have some really excellent readers, with a broad scope of reading experiences and their input is invaluable. My very talented editor Margot Atwell and I work very closely with these books, to the point where they’re almost parts of us. Just like you can’t really smell yourself, sometimes you need that outside voice to tell you something stinks in a book you’ve read so many times you can almost recite it.
Definitely the biggest challenge was the rewrite. In heaven I’ll never have to edit, but within this mortal coil, this was a brutal rewrite, and there were a lot of very solid criticisms that needed answers. I’m a huge believer in editing, though it can be agony.
The second biggest challenge is the marketing, knowing that we’re this small company, doing this all ourselves, and we have to pierce this enormous veil of indifference. There are so many voices out there that absolutely deserve to be heard, but at the same time, if you don’t step up to the bar, you’re not getting a drink.
Geeks of Doom: Have any advice for other first-time novelists?
Zak Zyz: I feel like I ought to see if I have any success before I give out advice. But I’m happy to give Ray Bradbury’s, which has never let me down. Write every day, even if it isn’t good, so you’ll be ready when it is.
Geeks of Doom: You’ve led an interesting life. You are an abstract expressionist painter, pirate radio DJ, hitchhiked cross-country, worked as a hotel manager in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. How did writing your first novel compare to all that?
Zak Zyz: There’s an element of danger to all of them. I won’t get shot at by looters or raided by the FCC while I’m clacking away in a coffee shop, but there’s still this dire element:
What if I’ve put so much of myself into this thing, given it years of my life, kept it foremost in my thoughts, and given it absolutely everything I have, and people don’t like it? Or even worse, they never even notice it?
I remember going to the Frankfurt Book Fair and walking around the halls, it’s just absolutely enormous there, there are a seemingly infinite number of books. Every one of those books has a team of people behind it who put years into it, and an author who wanted more than anything for you to read what they had to say. The vast majority of these books will vanish without a trace, and knowing that, it seems so spectacularly arrogant to think that you can overcome that, to stand out in an ocean of pages.
Fortunately for me, I am spectacularly arrogant. I’m going to sell a million books or die trying.
[Author Zak Zyz. Image courtesy of the author. Used with permission.]Geeks of Doom: How has your art influenced your writing?
Zak Zyz: The ecstasy and despair of creation are a big theme for me, and there are a lot of overly lavish descriptions of color and form and frenzied stream of consciousness sections in my first drafts which my editor has the good sense to pare down and cut. Hopefully some of that lust for color and detail is strong enough that bits of it are worth keeping.
Abstract art is such a tremendously wasteful thing, only a small percentage of what you paint and do is worth saving. The practice of painting over and discarding so many failed canvases makes it a little easier to kill your darlings in an edit (though I am still awful at it).
I’m sure the idea of Ink had something to do with me wearing a second skin of Rust-Oleum several days a week and leaving handprints and rings in tubs wherever I go.
Geeks of Doom: Who are your writing influences?
Zak Zyz: Ray Bradbury is absolutely the reason I write. When I was very small, I met him and he was the first adult I’d ever met who didn’t hate his job. Listening to him speak about writing was incredible, he just had this vast joy that he wanted to share with everyone. Truly a wonderful man. His book on writing, Zen and the Art of Writing was an enormous influence on me, I recommend it to anyone.
I knew right there that this is what I wanted, and I’ve been chasing it ever since. The love of writing really is the most incredible gift, if you’re willing to give it the years it pays you back a thousandfold.
The unforgettable moment of my boyhood: skipping school to read The Martian Chronicles in a loft during a thunderstorm. The rain beat on the skylight like a snare drum and the words on the page shone brighter than the lightning overhead.
Another huge influence was Steinbeck. Tortilla Flat remains probably my favorite book of all time, twenty years after I read it. He was just so in love with his characters, they were all just so decently indecent, so flawed and human.
I’m in awe of Frank Herbert as well, reading Dune was a revelation to me, what a labor! What an incredible result.
Geeks of Doom: You have a board game society. Did your gaming experience help you develop your novel?
Zak Zyz: One of the most helpful parts was that my gaming friends were there to help when I needed beta readers. One of my most vocal and helpful critics was the Guild Master of my World of Warcraft Guild, who had seen me wipe many a raid and had no problem telling me exactly how I’d screwed up everything. We had great feedback from many members of Strategically Correct, and of course, this is a fantasy book, highly informed by my experiences playing RPGs.
More than anything I want to capture that sense of adventure, that anything-can-happen thrill of exploration that we’re always chasing in our tabletop RPGs and the video games we play. If you can read Xan & Ink and feel some of that childhood thrill of wandering into a zone that was way too high level for you and getting your ass kicked, then I’ve succeeded.
Geeks of Doom: Any chance you’d turn any of your books into a game?
Zak Zyz: I’ve been developing a card game based on RAPAXORIS, another of my manuscripts, for the last two years. It’s a tarot-based deckbuilder that liberally rips off Peter Whalen’s amazing Dream Quest (which, to my mind, is the best game ever released for iOS). There’s also a game called roke in Xan & Ink which is a devious tile-laying game I would very much like to develop.
Geeks of Doom: On your website, you say you have two other books set in the same world as Xan & Ink. What can you tell us about those books? Is this a trilogy?
Zak Zyz: Xan & Ink is thankfully a standalone! Nothing against trilogies, but I’d really like to see more standalone fiction in the genre. I have another book set in the same world called RAPAXORIS, a literal portal fantasy about a legendary dungeon full of cunning demons. RAPAXORIS is a huge book clocking in at 666 pages in its current edit, and I’m going to fight to keep it one book.
Sadly, as much as I’d like to write standalones, the next book set in The Arc (working title LOAM) is currently 240K words, and will probably be 300K when it’s finished. There are limits to what bindings can bear (and what readers are willing to carry around). It will almost certainly have to be broken up.
Geeks of Doom: As you said you are a “small company, doing this all ourselves.” Did you attempt – or think about – getting your book published with a more established publisher? Why go this route?
Zak Zyz: To be honest, I never really considered going with an established house. There are some absolutely wonderful, talented people at publishers like Tor, and I’ve tried to learn as much as possible attending their panels and talking with them.
But Gutpunch has always been our dream. We want to do things our way, to struggle, screw things up spectacularly, learn quickly, and try again and again until we find an ultimate success or failure that is totally our own.
Xan & Ink is available now in paperback and on Kindle. Visit the author at zakzyz.com.