Jon Mollison is a prolific author of the self-styled pulp revolution. In the best spirit of his inspiration, Jon’s work transcends genre: he’s written sci-fi, post-apocalyptic dystopia, gritty noir, fantasy, superhero, sword-and-sandal . . . you name it, Jon’s taken it, shaken it up, and passed it through his own filter to craft some of the most fun adventure tales around.
It also helps that he’s a hell of a writer, with lean, evocative prose worthy of the pulp masters of yore.
I caught up with Jon online and he was gracious enough to answer some questions about his writing process and overall philosophy of where fiction is, where it’s going, and what it can be. My questions are in bold, and Jon’s answers are in normal type. Enjoy, and when you’re done why snag a few of Jon’s books?
Let’s start with a basic question: who are you and what is your writing modus operandi?
I’m a family man who works as a scientist by day and spends his evenings penning the sorts of tales that once appealed to hard nosed me, but which of late have fallen out of fashion. I tend to write in brief and focused bouts of creativity. To be frank, I don’t have the memory to be able to slowly grind away at a single work over months and months and month. To keep the action moving, I’ve got to keep myself invested, and that means blasting through the actual writing as fast as possible.
Given that philosophy of rapid writing, I suppose it’s not surprising that your stories tend to be fast-paced and action-focused. Does your process have anything to do with that aspect of your writing style?
Naturally. All things have an ebb and flow. Experiencing a novel as the creator leads to a very different experience compared to that of experiencing a novel as a reader. And yet, parallels exist. Condensing the writing process to the greatest extent possible helps me instinctively feel my way around the pacing of a story. Writers, like readers, need to allow themselves time to breath in between the whip-fast chase scenes and fight scenes. A long, slow pause for dialogue and negotiation and romance helps clear the palette and give me the energy and drive to move into the next pulse-pounding high-stakes scene.
Another aspect of your writing I like is the dialogue. It always sounds real without being affected, and the characters tend to be very identifiable based on how they speak. What goes through your mind as you craft dialogue?
Care to elaborate?
The dirty little secret to writing good dialogue is that it’s just a different form of conflict. Sometimes that takes the form of a straight negotiation. Sometimes they are sparring with information. Even when they agree on the major principles of whatever it is they are talking about, language and communication are sloppy things. They may have difficulty even understanding that they agree on the major principles, because together they have to reach out across that gulf between their brains, and the tools we upright apes have developed to do so are so imperfect.
Any given scene presented to the audience should carry a sense of tension to it. It’s the three act structure in miniature. A set-up, rising tension, and then a resolution that moves the story into the next scene.
Alternatively, you can think of the people in the conversation as a united entity and apply one of the six types of conflict to the scene. The most obvious, “man versus himself” would be a straight-up negotiation. “Man versus society” might take the shape of something like the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” where you have two people who both know what’s going to happen, but they have certain . . . forms and protocols that must be followed first.
“Man versus nature” might be two people trying to communicate across a raging river. Can they express themselves clearly enough to achieve their goals?
That’s what I mean by conflict.
Excellent breakdown! Conflict in dialogue keeps things moving forward and prevents boredom.
Another bit of detail: I noticed in your books that character names are both unique and meaningful or symbolic and fit the character very well. Or maybe it’s in my mind. Is this a conscious thing, or do you just go with what sounds cool/feels right?
For the important characters it’s a conscious effort. That’s as much to help me keep things straight as it is a favor to the reader. It’s also a way to help provide details for the reader while staying as economical with words as possible. One of my editors and a fine writer in his own right has drilled, “information is the death of narrative” into my head. Using an evocative name frees up verbiage better used to drive the action forward.
For minor characters, I do what all the best writers do: I use my friends’ names. Sometimes the names get tweaked to create a more subtle Easter egg for clever readers. You have appeared in a couple of my stories, for instance, but don’t ask me which ones. At fifteen books and counting, even I’m losing track!
Hah! I’ll have to read more then!
Let’s shift to action scenes. Your fights and chases are very brutal and bracing, yet never feel too short—or too long. What are some of your considerations when crafting action sequences?
The victory conditions for both parties. Violence for the sake of violence results in weak storytelling. There should always be a damsel to fight over, or one party should be looking to get out of the fight before taking too much damage.
So basically a deeper conflict beyond the actual physical conflict?
The brutality comes from my own experience in the boxing ring. Here we circle back around to information being the death of narrative. When you’re fighting, you’re running on pure instinct. You don’t have time to take in as much information as you’d like. It’s just impressions and motion and a rush of adrenaline with brief flashes of pain and weariness and never enough air in your lungs. I try to put the reader into the action by flooding him with that short burst of too much too fast.
Deeper conflict is what it’s all about. It’s the same thing that we were talking about with conversations and dialog. Frodo throwing a ring in a volcano means nothing with all of that deeper subtext about power and friendship and oathbreaking and oathkeeping.
Given your philosophy of “less is more” when it comes to info dumping—and I’m assuming exposition in general—who are some of your main literary influences who’ve informed this writing approach? And who are some writers you love even though you don’t write like them?
Taking the last one first, Jack Vance always amazes me with his ability to spend two pages itemizing the things on a wizard’s shelf and keep things interesting. His mastery of language is really something else. My own influences run toward the old masters like Robert E. Howard – that guy paints massive tableaus with two short sentences. Poets the both of them. On a more contemporary note, I consciously try to ape Glen Cook. He has a knack for creating narrative by NOT saying things. It’s hard to explain, but he uses the unreliable narrator to create drama that you only notice in retrospect. He also has a talent for not saying the things that go without saying. Little unimportant details that get left out until they become important, and by the time he spells them out explicitly, you realize that you knew them all the time.
Very cool. I definitely get a Howard vibe from your writing, and not just in Barbarian Emperor.
One interesting thing about your books is that you write in a variety of genres. Neon Harvest is very noir, the aforementioned Barbarian Emperor is Conan-meets-Ancient Rome intensity, while the Sudden series reminds me of Star Trek and Wing Commander with a Douglas Adams vibe. Plus, you write fantasy and superhero novels. How do you make that mental switch when changing styles and genres, or do you?
Mimicry. It’s not a conscious thing . . .
Let me walk that back a bit. You know how, when you spend time around people with a specific accent you start to adopt it in small ways yourself? Often without even realizing it. At least, that happens to me. The same thing happens when I read. If I read a lot of Howard, it leads to my adopting a more Howardian turn of phrase. In little and subtle ways, I think. I use that to my advantage and try to read a lot of whatever it is I’m reaching toward. For the Sudden series, I read a lot of cheeky sci-fi and space opera. For Barbarian Emperor I plowed through a lot of Conan.
Given that, is it still challenging writing in multiple genres?
Not at all. Genres are just costumes. My stories all touch on deeper things than swords and lazer swords and magic swords. Yeah, there are some logistical challenges that make the genres feel different for the reader, but E.Z. Sudden could have been a pirate on the Spanish Main and the central tension of a lost princess rescued by a smuggler would have remained unchanged.
Deeper things are definitely present in all your stories. They’re all wrapped around a very traditional and some might say wholesome moral and emotional core. Where does that come from?
That comes from a place of starvation. Our culture turned away from the traditional and the wholesome a long time ago. Such things are sneered at by the tastemakers as gauche and outdated. As a result the stories pumped out by the coastal snobs reflect a broken and overly simplistic model of the world. Digging down into the foundations of western civilization one can find whole untapped veins of rich cultural ore – mysteries and questions that go far beyond the surface level morality plays spoon fed audiences by LA and NYC.
My children caught onto the vapid nature of kid shows early. Through the nineties and oughts, every film was build on a foundations of, “You just have to believe in yourself.” And that surface level morality doesn’t ever stop. Hollywood bought into the One Hero Journey to Rule Them All, and tacked that one-note inner journey onto all sorts of films.
Sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes you have to believe in something deeper. Sometimes you have to look outside of yourself. And I like to think that most of my works encourage the reader to stop turning inward so much and instead look outward to see how much of this universe is built for them, to strengthen and support them, if they would just reach out and accept it.
That encouraging nature, that desire for something greater and better, shows up in a lot of your romance plots as well. I have Neon Harvest on the mind, since I just read that, but Virginia was running towards something as much as she was running away.
Is that how you tend to write romances? Are there other criteria you create in your romantic subplots?
We are all islands at the center of our own private ocean. Because of the nature of our existence, we are awash in a wealth of information filtered through our own experience. Because of our isolation, we often find ourselves at odds with the rest of the world. They can only operate from a very limited understanding of our position, and so we find ourselves at odds even those whose judgement we trust the most. The rest of the world can only gain some partial appreciation for our choices–whether it be our choice in which car to drive or career to pursue or whom to marry. The latter, man and woman joined together as one, provides for the nearest we discrete individuals can ever hope to come to a true understanding of another.
So where most romances begin and end with “we have to make society understand our love for each other”–and that’s a fine obstacle to overcome, one rich with drama–I find myself far more interested in the smaller stakes of two people who have to first discover their love, and then begin the far more difficult task of making the other understand the depth of their feeling. In this case, the former obstacle really does become an opportunity to resolve the latter. The societal disapproval becomes a mechanism for demonstrating that the love interest takes primacy over the wishes of anyone and everyone else.
Getting back to the idea of starvation, if we as a culture—America, the West, whatever you want to call it—are starved for the things that used to sustain us, where do writers come in? Where do you come in?
Maybe it’s more precise to say we are malnourished. Our culture is like our food–there’s so much of it out there it’s possible to gorge yourself into a torpid coma. Most people just consume what is dumped on the plate in front of them. The stuff that nourishes the soul tastes better, but you have to refine your palette to appreciate it fully. And you have to actively seek out the healthy and challenging stuff. To really torture the metaphor here, I consider myself something of a short order cook style of writer. I offer readers a filling meal and turn it out quick. Might not be the most sophisticated fare, but you’ll never go away unsatisfied.
To continue with the metaphor, you have to go to people where they are, and more people eat at diners than five-star restaurants . . . and nothing says diners can’t be damn good.
One last question before I let you go: where do you see the future of sci-fi/fantasy/fiction in general?
“The beatings will continue until the morale improves,” shall be the order of the day. We are definitely going to see the continued weaponization of fiction by the moneyed interests. Corporate publishing might be big and slow and unable to adapt to increasingly erratic markets and macro-scale financial changes, but they have a lot of inertia behind them. And fiction is such a powerful tool to shape minds and culture, they will not stop dumping massive amounts of money down the black hole of woke literature. It will continue to serve as a pipeline for them, too–bringing converts to their woke parody of a religion–but over the last half decade a lot of people have been forced to confront the reality of the Corporate-Government alliance.
The public might not fully understand the deeper trends and currents driving the drop in quality of their favorite media, but they know something is rotten in the state of entertainment. The jaded and bored public will come around in increasing numbers to find those independent writers and producers, the mammals still scurrying around the feet of the dinosaur publishers finding niches and exploitable new habitats. Those independents are the new radical fringe, and they are the ones experimenting with new methods of delivery, new means of telling stories, and new ways of reaching audiences.
In a way, its for the best. Those who just want to suck from the sewage pumped out by corporate media can drink their fill. Easy, cheap, fast, and abundant. On the other hand, the more rugged and intellectual readers have the opportunity to find the independents who have what they want, to find the experiments that work, and to share their finds with like minded explorers. The latter kind of readers are my kind of people, and I’m not alone. There are a host of authors thoroughly enjoying the challenge and effort of serving their needs. Storytelling is as old as language, and storytellers adapting to the needs and wishes of their audience are almost as old. Whatever happens, authors like me and my gracious host will always be around, ready to fill in the gaps between what moneyed interests want to provide and what good people want to read.
Jon’s books are available here!