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A Chat with James A. Owen
by Catherine Book
September 3, 2012
James lives in northeast Arizona and was lately in town to Guest at CopperCon32 over Labor Day weekend.  I caught up with him between panels.

James is a literature renaissance man:  a writer, illustrator, publisher and entrepreneur.  I was curious how he characterized himself.  He related how a publisher asked him the same question once.  James came from comics and has written, illustrated, designed and published his own magazines and books.  So he answered that he saw himself as a Merchant Prince, in training to become a Philosopher King.  He feels this encompasses anything that looks interesting that he might want to do and that he would have the aptitude to do.  He’d like to see a new wave of ‘renaissance’ people; people who will try new things.  I think the work he does with schools is his way of encouraging that kind of thinking.

What came first?  Drawing, he answered.  He came from a family of artists.  His mother, a first-grade teacher, had an easel with oil paints in the kitchen.  His uncle painted Native-American Kachina dancers and his other uncle was a printer, and his aunt was a graphic designer.  The earliest drawings he can remember doing were copies from coloring books his uncle made of his Kachina dancer pictures which introduced the fantasy aspect rather early on.  But when did dragons appear?  Dragons were completely accidental, he said.  It started with his series The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica.  The story centers around an atlas of maps to imaginary lands.  There’s an actual mariner’s map from about the 15th century that has a warning along the western edge:  Go ye no further, Here there be monsters, Here there be dragons.  So James wondered:  what if you found a map with the warning on the other side?  And this is where a lot of his ideas for the Chronicles came from and since he wanted to use the map, the dragons just came with it.

I asked if dragons were ruling his life now.  He chuckled and admitted yes.  But, as he said, he’s not naïve and is aware of what people are interested in.  He recognized that Harry Potter helped bring reading back to young people and Paolini brought dragons.  James feels he just stepped into that niche.  Is there a life after dragons?  As a matter of fact, he just finished negotiating a contract for a five-book series called Fool’s Hollow which is based on his Starchild graphic novels.  He never finished all the stories he wanted to tell in Starchild.  And since he’s moved on from comics and graphic novels to illustrated novels, his fans have wanted him to return to Starchild and finish the stories.  But his style has changed so much, he’s a better storyteller now, and even his illustration style has changed.  He didn’t feel he could fit back into it anymore.  But he could redo the stories in a new format and he could do them better!  So, he’s going to do a 20th Anniversary Nearly-Complete Starchild collection.  And Fool’s Hollow will follow that which will be a re-do of all those stories with his more mature style and skills.

James started self-publishing his own comics in the 1980’s wave (before he could drive) which included TMNT and again in the 1990’s when he had four friends he hung out with who all self-published:  Dave Sim, Martin Wagner, Colleen Doran (Sandman with Neil Gaiman) and Jeff Smith (Bone).  They were so popular that DC and Marvel complained their lines at trade shows were blocking DC’s and Marvel’s booths.  He sees that experience as laying the foundation for his later success; that if he hadn’t done all those things in self-publishing he wouldn’t have the career he has now.  His Chronicles are published with Simon & Schuster and that gives him exposure and shelf space that he could not have gotten on his own.  James still does some of his own self-publishing (Drawing Out the Dragons) and his own ebooks.  I wondered how he managed distribution of print editions.  As it turns out, James has a rather unique distribution system.  He’s been hawking his own books, doing signings and drawings for seven years and has built up a network of all the good booksellers who now know him.  He just calls them up.

He had made reference a couple times to his youth, so I asked him how old he was when he made his first professional sale.  He was thirteen and working for his aunt as an apprentice.  It was a logo for Hatch Construction and Paving up in Northern Arizona and still in use today.  And what was his first professional sale in our genre?  His first comicbook was called Pryderi Terra and he was sixteen.  He was the youngest professional exhibitor ever to attend the San Diego ComiCon.  His business partner and he got a bank loan to fund the exhibitor table and they hired his aunt to drive them since neither of them had a driver’s license.  Pryderi Terra was the precursor for Starchild that came along six years later. 

And James continued to demonstrate his entrepreneurship when he finished Drawing Out the Dragon, a non-fiction treatise on life, choices, and belief in oneself; a nice little motivational book.  Anyway, although he had successfully marketed it as an e-book, he started getting requests for print editions; however, he really didn’t want to go into debt doing them.  So, he set up a Kickstarter fund that raised 130% of his goal.  He did a nice jacketed hardcover, and a paperback.  He’s planning to use Kickstarter again to fund the 20th Anniversary Nearly-Complete Essential Starchild.  So, his fans and supporters should keep an eye on his website for the opportunity to score on whatever goodies he’s planning to provide to contributors.

So how does James actually create ‘the magic?’  He related the most wonderful-sounding living/working conditions I’ve ever heard.  He lives about three blocks from his studio which is a hundred-year old LDS church (where he attended Sunday school).  He can see his children off to school, walk to work, and return home for dinner.  If the spirit moves him, it’s an easy walk back to the studio.  So why the church?  He had been living in Washington when they had a daughter and they decided to move back to his home town to give his daughter lots of family.  It was a huge, beautiful, unique building but derelict.  It was supposed to be a retirement home at one point.  It’s become his own ‘Willy Wonka factory’ with magic in every room.  His first Sunday school classroom is his comicbook room.

And when he writes, what’s most important:  setting, plot or characters?  At this point, he thinks plot is most significant.  If one is a good storyteller, one can attract a large readership.  It isn’t always necessary to be the greatest writer to be successful; sometimes it’s enough to be a good storyteller.  He does tons of research; three shelves behind his desk hold books relevant to the current project.

What has James done of which he’s most proud?  He replied:  the third chapter of the first Mythworld novel which takes place entirely in a nightclub in Vienna with two professors, one of ancient literature and the other of music.  They were there to meet a zen illusionist.  It was so tight and so complete, with lots of magic (even a little sensual) - that chapter in that book is the work of which he’s most happy.  He wrote a screenplay for it and would love to direct a short film.  And I am pretty certain that if there’s a way for that to happen, James will have the will. 

James – you were a wonderful guest at our convention and a delightful interviewee.  Thanks again for your time and good luck always.

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