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Countdown Interview with Jim C. Hines

By Jason Sanford Mar 6, 2008, 15:25 GMT

Countdown Interview with Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines is the author of three humorous fantasy novels--Goblin Quest, Goblin Hero, and the newly released Goblin War--which star a nearsighted goblin runt named Jig. His stories have also been published in a number of book anthologies and magazines, including Writers of the Future and Realms of Fantasy. Several of his new fantasies are forthcoming from DAW Books, including The Stepsister Scheme and The Mermaid's Madness. For a review of Goblin War, go here.  

10) I find it interesting that you went from studying psychology at Michigan State University to writing humorous fantasies. Does knowing psychology help you appreciate the humor in the world, or do you have to have a sense of humor to truly understand human psychology? 

Interesting question. I probably spent more time on this one than anything else you asked me. I think . . . I think that you can't really understand people if you don't understand humor. I'm having flashbacks to Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land, how it was impossible for him to really comprehend humans until he first understood why we laugh. Humor is such a part of who we are, and we use it for so many different purposes. To attract attention or to deflect it; to cheer someone up or to mock them. Laughter is a communal experience, and that makes it powerful. It invites others to join in. 

One of the best e-mails I've received from my readers was from a woman who said my books helped her smile during a very rough time in her life. That's the sort of thing I strive for as an author. 

9) What are your thoughts on the differences between literary parodies and comedies? For me, most literary parodies like Bored of the Rings come across as flat, one-line jokes that readers quickly tire of. However, true comedies, like Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker series, and your own writings, are much richer and deeper than mere parody could ever be. What accounts for these differences? 

I think one of the key differences is the story. Bored of the Rings amused me, but it was all joke.  There's not an original story to carry the humor. Pratchett, on the other hand, writes great stories about people we actually care about. The humor adds another layer of enjoyment, but even when one of the jokes falls flat, you've still got the story to pull you along. If a parody's humor doesn't hit you just right, you've got nothing but a failed joke. 

You can guess which of these approaches I aspire to. 

8) Your comments about humor adding another layer of enjoyment to stories, and that one can't understand humans without understanding humor, really struck a chord with me. Even though one goal of fiction is to hold a mirror up to reality, many writers avoid humor like the plague. Grab your average literary or fantasy novel and you have lots of angst and horror and drama, but little humor. Why do most writers fear mixing humor into their stories, even though humor exists in every aspect of our lives? 

I think part of it may be the (not unreasonable) fear that they won't be taken seriously. Let's just say I'm not really expecting to see Goblin War make the Nebula or Hugo ballots. Not unless they add a category for Best Use of a Flaming Spider. 

That said, I do see a fair amount of humor in books these days. Some genres have more than others--there's a lot of fun stuff going on in urban fantasy, for instance. 

But humor can be risky when you're trying to sell your work. Write a straight fantasy tale, and you need to match the editor's taste in fantasy. Write humorous fantasy, and both the fantasy and the humor need to work. 

7) The beating heart of all fiction is a character whom readers can relate to. Your Goblin Trilogy follows the adventures of a nearsighted goblin runt named Jig, who is at best a reluctant hero. What was your inspiration for Jig? Why do readers relate so passionately to this weak, unimpressive goblin? 

I wanted to write a story from the monsters' point of view. There are a lot of ways to do that, Shrek being one of the most popular examples. But Shrek has it easy. He's big, scary, and strong enough to pummel most heroes without breaking a sweat. If I was going to write these books, I wanted to write about a real underdog, and you don't get much lower on the fantasy food chain than goblins. 

I think a lot of us have more in common with Jig than we do with your typical fantasy heroes . . . even if we don't want to admit it. Jig isn't the long-lost son of a king. The magic of the ages doesn't run through his blood. He doesn't leap fearlessly into battle to defend his people. He's just this little goblin who's in completely over-his-head, doing his best to stay alive. As scared and desperate as he is, he never stops fighting. 

And sure, he'd betray every one of his companions to protect himself, but at least he's honest about it, right? The goblins never pretend to be anything other than what they are, and I love that about them. 

6) While the Goblin Trilogy is funny, there's also a lot of action and adventure. Do you find it difficult to mix humor into action scenes in which characters may die? Have there been any situations where you wrote a scene and later realized the events which transpired were just too serious to combine with humor? 

Not really . . . I think humor and drama work well together. Just look at some of Joss Whedon's work. My books do tend toward the lighter side, but there are still some fairly tense scenes sprinkled through the pages. Like I said earlier, I don't believe humor is enough by itself; you need a good story, too. For the drama and tension to be effective, you have to care about the characters and what happens to them. Humor is one way readers become attached to a character. 

On the flip side, a good joke in the middle of a high-stress situation can be much funnier than the same joke in other circumstances. 

5) I see that Jig is running for President in 2008. What are your hopes for this candidacy? While the American people seem to be wanting change in this election year, is this really the type of change they should embrace? 

Well, my hope is that people will be entertained and rush to support Jig's candidacy by buying lots of books. From the candidate's point of view, I believe the thing that most appealed to Jig was the idea of having dozens of trained secret service people to protect him. 

Personally, I do feel that America is ready for a goblin candidate. There's been a lot of talk about diversity this year, but the Blue Party is the only one to present not one, but two non-human candidates. (Jig's running mate is his pet fire-spider Smudge.) Goblins are known to be selfish, cowardly little backstabbers, so he should do well in Washington D. C.  Jig's also a war veteran (see Goblin War), which gives him much more insight than many of the other candidates. 

You know those corruption scandals you hear about in Washington? Forget the ethics committees and their wrist-slapping. Under Jig's rule, anyone caught in such a scandal would be handed directly to Jig's executive chef Golaka, who's already planning a new recipe for deep-fried senator. This is exactly the kind of decisive change our country needs. Vote Jig/Smudge in November! 

4) I've never been a fan of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, seeing the book as an evil story about a selfish little brat and his co-dependent and warped relationship with an overly loving tree. So you can imagine my joy at reading about the character of Oakbottom in Goblin War, who turns Shel's classic story into the tale it should have always been (for those who haven't read Goblin War, let's just say the boy is no longer co-dependent). Any thoughts on The Giving Tree? Any idea why the book remains so popular among kids and adults? 

I've got mixed feelings about The Giving Tree, as you probably gathered from Oakbottom's story. In the beginning, I do think the book works well as an analogy for a parent-child relationship. It's a completely one-way relationship, but that's how it's supposed to work. The tree giving her leaves to the boy? Well, let's just say I had a lot more hair before my kids came along. 

But the relationship in Silverstein's book never changes. In real life, you hope your children will grow up, and the relationship will eventually become more of a mutual thing. In the end, the child often becomes the caretaker, tending to the parent or parents in their old age. Where as the boy in The Giving Tree, who's now middle aged or older, is still coming to the tree and demanding she sacrifice what's left of her body to send him on a freaking cruise. 

I like the idea of unconditional love. I'm not too fond of people who abuse that love. 

3) Is Goblin War the last readers will see of Jig, or do you plan on bringing him back for more stories? 

Goblin War is the last goblin book, at least for a while. As you know, the book leaves Jig and company in a very different situation, and I think there's potential for further stories. My editor has hinted that she wouldn't object to more Jig, either. But I'm contracted to the princess novels through at least 2009. 

I do have a Smudge story coming out in an anthology called Gamer Fantastic sometime this year or next. That makes the fifth goblin tie-in short story I've done, and I doubt it will be the last.  They're so much fun to write about! 

2) Tell us a little bit about your upcoming novels The Stepsister Scheme and The Mermaid's Madness. 

The Stepsister Scheme started out as my response to the fairy tale princess phenomenon. Disney and Barbie are two of the biggest perpetrators. I wanted to write a book that took these characters back to the older stories, before they were sanitized and commercialized. Being me, I also wanted to have fun with them. 

What I ended up with is a mash-up of old fairy tales and Charlie's Angels. Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella make an amazing team. Each one brings certain gifts and powers to the mix, and each one is struggling to come to terms with a rather painful backstory. The first book sees Cinderella's stepsisters plotting to destroy her. The second book will take on The Little Mermaid. (In my world, the mermaid makes a very different choice at the end of her story.) 

DAW also bought a third book, tentatively called Red Hood's Revenge. I'll leave it to the reader to figure out which story I'll be playing with in that one. 

1) One of the most inane questions in any job interview is "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" So let's turn the question around and ask, ten years ago, did you see yourself being where you are today? Is your life and writing today anything like what you thought it might be back then? 

Interesting timing. Exactly ten years ago, I received a phone call from Writers of the Future, telling me my story "Blade of the Bunny" was a first place winner for that quarter. I thought that was my big break, that I was on my way to being a Big Name, and rejection letters would soon be a thing of the past. 

Let's just say it didn't go quite the way I planned. I've come to terms with the idea that I'll probably never be able to quit the day job, due to the need for health insurance and a steady paycheck. On the other hand, I had hoped to be writing and selling my books pretty steadily by this point. That didn't happen as soon as I hoped, but I got here eventually. 

I think the biggest way my imagination fell short is that I never realized how much more work was involved, beyond simply writing the stories. You've also got to worry about revisions, editorial discussions, foreign and domestic taxes, page proofs to review, random deadlines that pop up without warning . . . toss in the promotional work I try to do, and it's turned into a pretty high stress job. 

Not that I'd trade it for anything.

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