By Kat Goodwin (2010-04-24)
John Levitt is the author of the urban fantasy series featuring Mason and his dog-like companion Lou that includes Dog Days, New Tricks and Unleashed. He is also a musician and you can check out his band at http://www.myspace.com/theprocrastinistas
We got John to answer a few questions for SFFWorld:
1) You are one of those authors who has had more varied and colorful life experiences than most of your readers. You’ve managed a ski lodge, are a jazz/rock musician, served as a police officer for several years in Utah, wrote two mystery thrillers as J.R. Levitt – Carnivores and Ten of Swords – and so on. How has your life influenced your fiction writing and what drew you to then write a fantasy mystery series?
I always wanted to be a writer when I was young, but I always assumed I'd be a literary writer. One day, after numerous short stories, I realized what the problem was – I hadn't experienced anything and had nothing to say. I dropped writing and became a musician instead.
Then, years later, after some time as a police officer, I found myself telling "war stories" to my non-cop friends, who were fascinated. I realized that I actually did have something to say now, so I wrote a cop thriller.
This was pre-Internet, if you can imagine such a time, so I had a tremendous advantage. I knew all about police procedures, how cops actually acted and talked, forensics – all the stuff you can find today on the Internet. I even used an actual autopsy report with the name and description changed. Back then, it was a lot harder to write authentically unless you had some actual experience.
Then I quit writing again, for other reasons. But when I was a kid, I read every fantasy book I could get my hands on. So when the writing bug struck again, I thought, why not write a fantasy that's also like a mystery – a cop type book with spells instead of guns, black magic instead of criminals. I didn't realize that it had already been done, and in fact was rapidly becoming a recognized sub-genre, that of urban fantasy. I discovered Jim Butcher halfway through my first ms, and was both delighted to see there was a market, and appalled that I hadn't got there first.
And I try to ground my stories in reality. So the things that are important to me, things I really understand, like music and dogs and the city I live in, naturally pervade my books. My experiences absolutely influence my writing in a major way, and even though my characters inhabit a fantasy world, most of them come from real life, in one way or another.
2) In Dog Days, the first novel in the series, we’re introduced to Mason, one of the rare number of people in the world who have magical abilities. Mason also has something even more rare – an Ifrit – a spirit familiar named Louie that takes the shape of an animal, in this case, a dog. Like yourself, Mason is a jazz guitarist and used to be an enforcer who polices other magic-users. He gets dragged back into that aspect of his life by violent events. Can you tell us something about how you came up with the concepts for the story and what led you to feel that having a sorta-dog was the right way to go?
I wish I could. Writers vary between those who have clear ideas and plot everything out, and those who have only a starting point and let it develop organically from there, and everything in between. I'm on the far end of the spectrum, towards the organic method.
I was going to give Mason a sidekick, but it never seemed quite right. But the idea of the dog was always in the back of my mind. My GF's dog, very much like Lou in the book, has a habit of disappearing into the bushes on walks through the park, especially the overgrown wild areas. He simply vanishes. More than once, I'll stand there calling for him, finally give up, turn to walk on, and trip over him because he somehow has managed to come up behind me without my ever seeing him, even though I'm keeping a sharp eye out. You know, like magic.
This gave me the idea of a "dog" as a sidekick who could slip between spaces, and the other attributes developed as I wrote his character until he became much more than a simple dog.
3) The magic in the series is an interesting blend of Santeria concepts, Native American legends, mythology, quantum dimensions, and creatures that possibly emerged from your sub-conscious after late nights at the jazz club. Is this something that you planned out a lot or did it develop organically too?
Again, almost everything I do is unplanned. An idea comes to me and I run with it – sometimes from something I see, sometimes from out of the blue. Not that I keep everything I write. Sometimes it turns out to be a blind alley, or doesn't fit with the rest of the book.
But when it's right, I can feel it, even if I don't quite know why. Then I have to come up with an explanation, but the basic heart of the idea is almost always an emotional one, a realization that the scene I'm writing or the way I describe magic is somehow right, no matter what the mechanics of it may be. Then I just have to figure out why it's right.
4) New Tricks, the second novel in the series, shows Mason some of the unexpected aspects of magic when he is dealing with magic users who are being turned into mindless husks and a group of homeless people whose past and problems may be connected to Mason’s own fate. This idea of the possible consequences of magic continues in the third novel, Unleashed, with the complicated issues concerning the existence of the Ifrits and things that are like them, but more deadly. Are you particularly interested in the dark side of your magic world, or about how people deal with power?
I think there's a dark world that resides right below everyday life, and most of the time we skim the surface of life, hardly aware it exists. Which is the way things should be; if we were always aware that the dark side is there, waiting, that knowledge would make life grim indeed. Mason and his friends are more aware of the dark side simply because of who they are. So I try to balance that dark side with the light, the monster in the closet with the trip to the pizzeria.
I don't think I'm particularly drawn to dark themes, but I am interested in how choices and actions always have consequences. Consequences aren't necessarily bad, but they always result from those choices. And I'm very concerned with that, because without acknowledging that truth, a book becomes unreal.
I don't care if you're a suburban dad or a guy with magical powers, when you kill someone, for example, it affects you. It has to. You don't just continue with your life like nothing happened — the aftermath affects you and everyone around you.
Even though I'm dealing with magical practitioners and fantastical happenings instead of everyday life, the characters involved still need to act in a realistic fashion, especially emotionally.
5) Let’s talk a little about Mason’s love life. The man seems to keep getting entangled with his ex-girlfriends, and some of his newer relationships aren’t much better. Is this part of his character’s evolution as he grows up or are you just a hopeless romantic?
I think it's part of who he is. Being a good magical improviser, or a musician, requires a certain degree of selfishness and a somewhat careless disregard about the everyday concerns of life. And don't forget, the profession of musician is not one noted for promoting stability in relationships.
But Mason has a good heart. I think he's had some bad luck – or maybe it's just bad timing. And yes, he finds it hard to let go. That "what if" is always lurking. But sooner or later, I'm sure things will work out for him. He's grown lately and I think he's ready --- though we may never get to see it.
6) Music is obviously a big part of the main character and the series, and that can be a hard thing to pull off in written fiction. How do you integrate music into these suspense stories and give us those great performance scenes? Is there any link between the books and the songs you do with your band, The Procrastinistas?
The performance scenes are easy for me to write. I've spent enough time on bandstands myself so that it's a familiar and comfortable place to hang out – both in real life and in my writing.
And since music and magic are so intertwined in the books, it’s not that hard to weave it into the plot – it seems totally natural to me. I think music is as close a thing to magic as we have, anyway. A mere collection of different pitched sounds have the ability make us weep.
In Western music, there are only twelve tones (including sharps and flats.) When you arrange those tones in a certain fashion, you get a melody. Anyone can do it, but the result is usually bland and forgettable. But arrange them in a slightly different sequence and rhythm, and you can have something lyrical and haunting that lasts for centuries. Why is that? Magic, I say.
But as a writer, I have to be careful not to overdo it. As a musician, music naturally has great interest for me, and I have to remind myself that not everyone feels the same way.
7) In addition to music and exploring the dark side, the series makes great use of humor, especially when it comes to the relationship between Mason and Louie, who has many dog-like traits but also abilities far beyond any dog, which makes it worse. How do you work that aspect into the series without everything becoming a joke? Is it the relationships between the characters?
It's a fine line, and one I'm very aware of. Let's back up a little.
When I first conceived this series, I always meant for Mason to have a sidekick, and one who was not just a sounding board, but valuable and in some ways more competent, in a different fashion. It's a long literary tradition: Holmes and Watson, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Frodo and Sam. Not to mention innumerable Hollywood buddy films. Part of the charm is always the relationship of the two main characters, as much or more as the actual plot.
When Lou unexpectedly appeared on the scene, (like magic) I realized I didn't need another sidekick – Lou was it. The interaction between Mason and the rest of the crew is a large part of the books, but the relationship between Mason and Lou is the foundation. It's like having the best dog in the world and your best friend rolled into one. Who wouldn't want that?
But Lou can't engage in conversation, can't discuss things with Mason. So I had to find another way to develop not only Lou's character, but their relationship, and the way I tend to do that is with humor. But as I said, it's a fine line. Humor, especially in a first person narrative, always teeters on the verge of snarkiness, which I don't care for at all.
I want my books to be entertaining – basically fun, but at the same time not tongue in cheek at all. I want the situations and characters to seem real. Real people don't make jokes in life-threatening situations, but they don't walk around being deadly grim and serious all the time, either.
So, terrible things happen in the plots, but I don't want to see the books descend into a grim and dark place. For me, humor is the crucial element that establishes the proper tone and gives balance. But it's tricky to pull off because it's all too easy to cross that line into self-consciousness or parody and ruin everything.
8) I will admit that Victor and Eli are my two favorite characters in the series. I like the way that they are both mentors for Mason and drive him insane as well. How much are they based on real people and what are your plans for them in the series?
Like most writers I take attributes of people I know and incorporate them into my characters. But neither Eli nor Victor are based on anyone in particular – they pretty much developed their identities on their own. But the unconscious does come into play.
Eli is a sort of father figure, of course, but not based on my own father or anyone else's that I know. But the relationship between Mason and Victor is more like a sibling rivalry between two brothers who are very different. I wasn't even aware of that until someone else pointed it out, and yes, I do have a couple of brothers.
I can't say what plans I have because I never know what's going to happen until I start writing. And sometimes not even then.
9) You’re developing the fourth book in the series to come out later this year, and you’ve indicated that it may be Mason’s last case. Please tell us you’re rethinking this decision, or do you have other plans for future projects in the works and can you give us hints about those?
Well, thanks for the encouragement. The ms for the fourth book is finished – more troubles for Mason and Lou, naturally. I honestly haven't decided if there'll be any more, although I'll have to make up my mind soon. But I'd hate to write another book in the series only to have it lose the spark and disappoint readers,
I'm still interested in my characters' lives, but I'm not sure if there's that much more to say, and better to leave a series too early than too late. A possibility is one more, to wrap some things up.
A new series is another possibility, though I obviously couldn't put a dog in it, and that would be odd after having Lou around for so long. And there's also a YA book I've had in mind for quite a while but haven't had the time to focus on. Kids and ghosts and some other things – but no vampires.
Thanks for talking with us, John!