Old-Style Heroics: James L. Daniels on Writing in the Dead Man Series

James L. Daniels writes heroic fiction.  He loves the “old-style heroics” of brave, compassionate men fighting the good fight in world rife with profoundly untenable situations.  Daniels’ Dead Man: Ring of Knives is the second installment in Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin’s Dead Man series.

The Dead Man books feature Matt Cahill, “an ordinary man leading a simple life… until a shocking accident changes everything. Now he can see a nightmarish netherworld of unspeakable evil and horrific violence that nobody else does…”  When Cahill wakes, that is, he sees the darkness within people’s hearts—sees rage, madness, and seething violence–in the form of lesions, swarming bugs, and rotting skin.

The first installment in the series, Dead Man: Face of Evil, set the stage and a very high standard.  Each subsequent installment will be written by an alternating roster of writers.

“When Bill Rabkin and I came up with The Dead Man as a book series,” said Goldberg, “we knew we wanted the roster of writers to be a mix of seasoned pros and exciting new voices… and James was the first name that came to mind. It’s an enormous thrill for us to be the first to bring James into print and to introduce him to a wide audience. I have no doubt he’s going to have a long and successful career as a novelist… he is too good not to.”

The thrill, Mr. Goldberg, is all ours.  Daniels picks up the torch and makes it his own.

Daniels, among other things, explores the Big Question of why Cahill sees what he sees.  Early in the first chapter, Cahill asks himself:

Maybe this is the reason I was given this gift… Not just to get caught up in carnage, but to prevent it. To head off bad things before they come to pass. To make a difference in people’s lives for the better.

He liked the idea. It made him feel less like a delusional homeless man and more like a wandering knight. To save damsels in distress? He could get used to that gig.

In many ways, Ring of Knives is a quest novel.  It opens with Cahill trying to reach a mental health center where he hopes to speak to another man who purportedly has a similar “gift”, who perhaps sees what Cahill sees.   Will Cahill find answers?  Is his “gift” really a gift or it a curse?    Is it merely an ability to see behind the veil of everyday normalcy and propriety?  Is some sick joke being played at Matt Cahill’s expense? Or is Matt Cahill simply—well, there’s nothing simple about it—crazy?

Below, Daniels and I talk about Ring of Knives, Mr. Dark, and writing about a heroic character living in a dark world.

So you get the call (or e-mail) from Lee, then what?

James L. Daniels: The first thing I did after reading Lee and Bill’s first book was to select a plotline from several that they had suggested. The one I picked had Matt going to an asylum, and since I’ve been in lots of mental health centers (for business, not pleasure), it seemed like a good bet. I had some working knowledge of how they operated. And I’ve always liked fiction that took place in that setting (Cuckoo’s Nest, Arkham Asylum, etc). I should mention as a disclaimer that the mental health centers I’ve been in were generally well-run, and the dysfunctional hell-hole I depict in Ring of Knives is entirely of my own invention!

After I’d picked my plot and read Lee and Bill’s first Dead Man book, I started going through my iPod playlists, trying to find music that would set the right tone for the piece I wanted to write.  I finally settled on Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”.  It’s a powerhouse anthem that’s full of valor and melancholy, which for me summed up the mood in Ring of Knives.  So I listened to that song – a lot.  As I did, images started to come to me… Matt walking through woods, stalked by an unseen specter; Matt holding an exhausted young girl in his arms; Matt outnumbered, unarmed, surrounded by enemies with blades…

I then did something that I hadn’t done before: I started to write in a non-linear fashion.  Instead of trying to build the story from the ground up, I just began writing whatever came into my head, even if it was the second-to-last scene, or a snatch of dialogue that seemed funny, or a description of a moment in a fight that hadn’t even been established yet.  Because I did it this way, the writing went quickly.  Usually I get bogged down in transitions, which are tricky, or exposition, which can be boring. But this way, I was able to skip from interesting part to interesting part, and once they were fleshed out a little, it was easy enough to string them together in a way that was (hopefully) coherent.

I hadn’t written in a while, and I was nervous when I started, and even more nervous when I saw the ever-expanding list of literary MVP’s that were signing on to write  Dead Man books.  But I soon discovered that my story was coming together.  All it required was for me to wait ‘til my family was asleep, flip open my laptop, and then forgive myself for the 20 or 30 minutes of awful prose that I inevitably have to get out of my system before anything readable emerges.  I would literally look at the clock and say, “Time for 25 minutes of dreck,” and start typing.  And sure enough, during the 26th minute, something worthwhile would happen, and slowly the piece began to get wheels.

I pushed hard to get the story done in a month.  There’s an old saying: “If you can’t hit hard, hit first.”  I wanted to be the first of the guest writers to produce a Dead Man book, because I had some ideas about how the antagonist, Mr. Dark, could operate, and I was worried that if my book came out fourth or fifth, others’ works would either pre-empt or contradict my take on Lee and Rabkin’s dark mythology.  So I plugged away, reached that magical mid-point, and after that it gained momentum (especially since I’d back-loaded a lot of the violence into the end of the book), and finished up sooner than I’d expected.

For some reason the 26,000 length really worked for me.  It was longer than a short story, so I could use more dialogue, description and atmospherics than I usually allow myself, but the fact that it wasn’t anything near a 100,000-word novel kept the work lean.  It’s also not a long term project. If a Matterhorn”-length work is a marathon, then a Ring of Knives novella is more like a 5K, which suits me just fine.  This project has taught me that I’m a better sprinter than a long-distance runner, and that’s good to know.

How extensive or minimal was the plot-line you were given?  How much flexibility did you have?

James L. Daniels: The plotline I was given was literally two or three sentences.  I was given an enormous amount of leeway to determine the plot and tone of the book.  Bill and Lee did advise me to make some changes at the end, though they weren’t extensive.  But it was actually very instructive for me to see what they wanted changed.  In the middle of the book, I have Matt interview a mentally ill resident who gives him a lot of flack.   And I had given Matt some cutting responses in return.  Lee and Bill were both adamant: that’s not who Matt is.  No matter how rude or difficult the guy is, Matt would never disrespect him because he would recognize that the man is ill, is a victim of evil, and isn’t capable of rational thought.  In other words, Matt is a lot more compassionate than I had portrayed him as being.  This was very eye-opening, and once I made the changes and read them through, the character in my head literally transformed into a better, more idealistic person.  I liked him more than the hero in my first draft, and I think the readers will, too.

It brings out a larger issue that I know I’ve struggled with in the past: today we are so used to the anti-hero as protagonist, that it becomes very natural to make our main characters embittered, nasty, or morally compromised.  But deep down, that’s not what most readers yearn for.  Most readers want the protagonists to be idealized versions of themselves.  And so to create characters that are unabashedly brave, and honest, and compassionate is not only weirdly liberating for the writer, but – I think – deeply satisfying to audiences everywhere.

What was it about Lee and Bill’s “dark mythology” that got you excited?  What direction did you take in?

James L. Daniels: I love the fact that the central character in the series is a loner who travels endlessly in search of the answer to a mystery, which will heal both himself and others.  To me, this type of tale hearkens back to the Grail legend, which I incorporated into Ring of Knives.  I think that Matt is the modern-day equivalent of the medieval knight errant, and also of the gunslinger-in-a-white-hat, who is his American descendant. This set-up is an incredibly flexible template for storytelling, and it allows the author to take it in any direction possible.  I’ve seen brief summaries of the stories to come, and they range from gritty urban shoot-em-ups to gothic Lovecraftian lore.  It’s wonderful stuff.  My own brand of pulp is derived pretty directly from Edgar Rice Burroughs; he’s the one (along with “The Uncanny X-Men”) who first snagged my attention as a twelve-year old, and those old-style heroics never cease to move me.  So I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from John-Carter-type stories and fashioned my own tale, which I dressed up in the trappings of Clive Barker, fed raw meat, and unleashed.

What is up with Mr. Dark, anyway?

James L. Daniels: That’s a good question, and every author in the series is going to come up with their own interpretation.  Lee and Bill have been enormously generous letting the writers contribute to the development of the Dark Man’s nature. And it’s interesting, because – like Matt’s character – the Dark Man is an archetype that’s incredibly versatile.  A blogger recently implied that Lee and Bill may have borrowed the evil-clown idea from Todd McFarlane’s Spawn series.  But this is nonsense.  The  unpredictable trickster is one of the oldest characters in fiction.   McFarlane’s Violator was begat by Stephen King’s Pennywise who was begat by Jerry Robinson’s The Joker, who was begat by Edgar Allen Poe’s Hop-Toad, who was begat by Mr. Punch, who was begat by Shakespeare’s Fool, who was begat by Harlequino (and perhaps Sir Thomas Malory’s Merlin), who was begat by Loki, who was begat by Raven (Europe), Coyote (America), and Spider (Africa).  They are all manifestations of the same principle.  What is that principle?  Every writer of the Dead Man will come to his or her own conclusions.

For myself, however, that principle is Entropy, and the madness and despair that arise from our recognition that all our efforts will ultimately end in death.  The major challenge of life is to withstand – and maybe even overcome – that terrible prospect.  In the Welsh Grail legend “Peredur”, the hero is frequently tormented by a black hag who reminds him at every turn that all his acts of valor are causing more harm than good.  That hag, portrayed eight hundred years ago, is the direct ancestor of Mr. Dark.  And you don’t have to be a medieval knight errant to know who she is.  I’ve seen her.  And I bet you have, too.  How we deal with her terrible message is the biggest challenge that we face in life.  And one of the ways we learn to deal with it is by reading about others who confront it head-on.  Matt Cahill is a hero because he does just that.  That’s why it’s a thrill to read about him.  That’s why, when we read about him beating the devil, we set down the book hopeful and happy, believing – for a time – that we can, too.

How did you approach the violence–writing the action, handling the violence?

James L. Daniels: My dirty secret: I love writing about violence.  Love it. A well-written fight always gets my blood pumping: makes me ball my hands into fists when the hero takes a hit, or get a thrill of release when he lands a haymaker.

I think a well-choreographed fight is like a microcosm of the overall story: it’s got a beginning, middle, and end; it has an inciting incident, climax, and denouement; and it should reveal character. I also believe it should always contain a surprise.  There’s nothing more boring than reading about two guys just whacking away at each other ’til one of them falls down.  The fight should somehow make use of the setting in which the characters find themselves… A battle in a saw mill shouldn’t be the same as one in the rigging of an opera house, or on a sandbar.  Each fight should be unique.  And in my opinion, the hero should usually be at a serious disadvantage until the last moment: “always outnumbered, always outgunned”, as Walter Mosley put it.

There’s a lot of traps for writers to fall into when writing about violence, but the one I see again and again is the portrayal of physically impossible events.  The other day I read a novel where the villain chases a woman up a staircase, so she throws a china vase at him.  It misses, and hits the floor near his feet, but the shards of china “embedded themselves deeply into his calf” so that he’s lame.  On what planet does ricocheting china have the force of a nail bomb?  Or again: in a bestselling novel, I found a scene where a mastiff chases a pregnant woman around her backyard “for several minutes” until it leaps at her, at which point she jumps out of the way and the dog brains itself against a tree-trunk. Really?  I’m six-foot-one, have long legs, am not pregnant, and I can’t outrun a Pomeranian.  These are extreme examples, I guess.

It’s more common for the writer just to punt and write about people punching each other repeatedly in the jaw, which is dull.  I think to jazz up a fight, writers should give themselves the challenge of trying to incorporate the setting into the fight, or have one of the characters use an unusual prop.  Remember in Alien when the android tries to shove the rolled-up magazine down Sigourney Weaver’s throat?  What a horrific, brilliant, memorable image. I haven’t seen that movie in twelve years and I still remember that vividly.  Would it be so vivid if he just punched her?  No way.  So that’s the challenge.

And I think, if anything, writers have to be willing to trust their instincts, even when they stretch logic.  The rolled-up-magazine attack is a really odd choice, when you think about it.  But in execution, it’s terrifying.  There’s a similarly effective moment in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre where one of the miscreants attacks a girl with a broom.  Or in Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, where the villain  attacks a swimmer by throwing rocks at him… the possibilities are endless.

The book comes out today.  Can you give us a peek at one of your odd choices or memorable images from a Ring of Knives fight scene?

James L. Daniels: Actually, I’m going to resist giving a spoiler for the final fight, which I think is a lot of fun.  But I’ll give you a preview of another Dead Man novella I’m working on.  Its working title is The Beast Within, and hopefully Lee and Bill will like it enough to include it in their series.  It begins with Matt defending a beautiful young woman against four nasty militia-types that he meets in a small Michigan town.  They’re armed with these long, whip-like chains that are sometimes sold in survivalist magazines.  They also carry tactical slingshots, and have at their disposal a big, tricked-out ATV.  So it’s four against one, and all Matt has at his disposal is his wit, his instincts… and his grandfather’s axe. Let’s just say it was a fun scene to write!

What was the hardest part of Ring of Knives to write?

James L. Daniels: At a certain point I knew that the story I was writing would have to have two flashbacks that explored Matt’s relationship with his wife, who has died of cancer before the first story begins. I put off writing those scenes because my own wife was diagnosed with cancer only two months ago.  So the second scene (where Matt’s wife is very sick) was hard to write.  But weirdly, it wasn’t hard to write because I didn’t know what would happen.  It was hard to write because I did.  I knew exactly what Matt would say in that situation, because it’s exactly what I would say.  And because of this, that the scene got written pretty quickly, but I felt kind of shaky and wasted after I wrote it, because it hit too close to home.  After that, I was eager to get back to writing about wild times at the insane asylum.  Because that had nothing to do with my life.

What’s next for you?

James L. Daniels: As I mentioned earlier, I’m working on another Dead Man novel that a really hope makes the cut.  I’ve been thinking about writing a sci-fi series about a guy who is paid to steal other people’s DNA.  And at some point I’d like to get a hardboiled novel published by Charles Ardai’s excellent Hard Case Crime line, which I’ve admired for years.

Oh, that reminds me!  I need to shameless plug the fact that I’ve also put on Kindle Ghost Bride, my 1920s noir mystery that took about a decade to finish (counting a six-year hiatus in the writing).  I hope people check it out and tell me what they think on my blog.  I can promise you that the book does, finally, have both a plot and an ending!  And it’s four times the length of Ring of Knives for the same price…

Thanks for hanging out with us here at Booklifenow.com.  Do you have any parting words?

James L. Daniels: Anyone who’s read the first part of this interview knows that my break with Ring of Knives came solely because Lee Goldberg chose to take an interest in me.  But looking back on it, the past few months have taught me two things.  First, that writing heroic fiction is a lot more energizing and satisfying than writing ultra-realistic “kitchen sink” drama, or post-modern puzzlers.  And second, that the business of writing seems to be largely about developing relationships.  And that’s a hard lesson, because a lot of writers, I think, are not confident socially, especially when dealing with authors, agents, publishers, and even their readers.  But I now think that that side of it is just as important as the writing itself – at least, it is if the writer’s goal is to reach a wider audience.

Thanks for taking the time to talk, Jeremy.  Good luck to you and all your readers!


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.



2 thoughts on “Old-Style Heroics: James L. Daniels on Writing in the Dead Man Series

  1. Great interview, James (and Jeremy!). As someone who will be contributing to the DEAD MAN series, I found your thoughtful responses to be helpful and inspiring. I've just begun RING OF KNIVES (that early scene in the truck … with the sunglasses … nice 'n creepy), but it's top-shelf stuff.

  2. Awesome! Thanks for saying so! And I look forward to reading your "Roadside Attraction" in Mondo Sasquatch…

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