Jeff Wheeler is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author of several fantasy novels. Among them are the Kingfountain and Muirwood series. His books are a blend of legend, history, and theology. He worked for many years at Intel before deciding to pursue his writing career fulltime. After dozens of rejections from traditional publishing houses, he opted to self-publish his books. This captured the attention of 47North, an Amazon publishing house. Four years after his early retirement from the IT world, Jeff Wheeler is quickly becoming a force in the literary world. He revived Deep Magic, a clean fantasy e-zine, to give writers in the subgenre a place to submit their works. Jeff’s unorthodox rise from rejection to success is an example to writers of how to overcome adversity and forging their own path to become a bestselling author. He is a devoted husband and father and a devout member of his LDS congregation. Jeff was kind enough to answer some questions for us today! (No spoilers!)
TLW: One of the many things I admire about your fantasy novels is the way in which you portray women. Your ladies are more Buffy than the “damsel in distress” trope. You take care to avoid writing female characters as powerless victims in a largely patriarchal society. Even your female villains are strong and powerful. What made you decide to go this much more female empowering route?
JW: It probably started with Princess Leia. I was in elementary school when the first Star Wars film came out; I still remember seeing it in the theater, and it made a huge impression on me. I grew up with mostly brothers, but then my mom had two girls and both were powerful (they needed to be when so outnumbered by us!) I’ve never liked writing stereotypes, so I’m not deliberately trying to make one sex stronger or weaker than the other. What I want is for my characters to feel realistic and human. I married a very strong woman, and she’s been an inspiration to me since we knew each other as teenagers. When I create characters, I want them to feel like real people. Many of them are actually inspired by real people—especially the girls.
You manage to marry historical fiction, Arthurian legend, and an undercurrent of theology into a fantasy series. This is quite an accomplishment. What made you think that a recreation of Richard III’s timeline into your fantasy world could work? How did you meld the genres so seamlessly?
I’ve always had a love of history and a love of fantasy, and it’s very natural for me to blend them together. I did my master’s thesis on an aspect of Richard III and have read many books and documents about that era. It’s part of my personal history, too—one of my ancestors died fighting in the same battle that killed Richard III. Like so many creative people, I often get my inspiration by mashing together ideas to form something new. I know a lot about the War of the Roses and thought that the setting would be an interesting era to write in. I mixed in some Arthurian legends and a trip to Yosemite, and voilà!
On the subject of theology, the Fountain magic has been compared to The Force. The Virtus concept is Roman based, but also carries some connotations of the Jedi code of honor. Your protagonists are self-sacrificing and honorable almost to a fault. In order to create tension, their adherence to their faith and their sense of nobility is constantly being tested. Were you ever tempted to have one of them fail their oaths and be destroyed by it?
Most people are inspired by inspiring stories. It sells a lot of Chicken Soup for the Soul books! There are so many examples in the world today of people who let others down or about those who are driven by greed and self-interest. I’m not interested in telling those kinds of stories. What I’ve always loved are those examples of people who gave it all for a higher cause. Those are the people I admire. Will I ever write a story about someone who doesn’t live up to that ideal? You never know. I like to surprise my readers.
One of the most poignant themes in your novels is that of the choice between free will and destiny. Did you find, in your research, that stories in our own history seem to repeat? Are we doomed to relive them until we learn from our mistakes?
It’s amazing to me how much history repeats itself. Take the Oath Maidens, for example, from the second half of the Kingfountain series. After coming up with that idea, I began to look for examples of more ‘Shield Maidens of Rohan’ (a nod to Tolkien) in history. I found so many. Yes, sometimes I think we are doomed to repeat mistakes if we don’t learn from them, but I also believe that every individual is capable of getting out of their cycle and doing better. History proves that is possible, too. But it’s always hard and many don’t try.
Your novels are in the subgenre of clean fantasy. The violence, while overt and necessary, is much more muted than in other literature. The human interactions are sweet and chaste. While there are some hints in your books of people engaging in activities that are unbecoming, your main characters are never put in positions that are untoward. Is it difficult to write in this genre and not fall into the modern trend of gory, explicit violence and oversexualization?
Let me put it this way: I think it is more difficult to write without those things than it is to include them. It’s easy to rely on the sensational or the sordid for its shock value. For years I worried that the audience for “clean fantasy” was shrinking and that no one would want to read the kind of stories I was interested in telling. But I made a commitment to myself and my family and God that I would write counter to the trend because I believe in it so strongly. It’s what motivated me to love the genre to begin with. When I started having success with my Muirwood books, it proved to myself (and my publisher) that the market for cleaner fare was ready for a change. It’s not a small niche, either. As a result of the success of my books, I re-started my old e-zine, Deep Magic, to encourage and provide a venue for other authors who share similar values and a market for readers who want more. I think the pendulum swung too far toward the darker fare. It’s gratifying seeing more and more family friendly fantasy in the market these days.
On the subject of writing as a craft, you managed to write three whole novels in six months. NaNoWriMo is considered an extreme, even insane, challenge for authors. Writing and editing three books in such a short time is incredible! You quit a successful IT career to become a fulltime author, but how did you stay motivated? What helped you keep writing?
I have the best job in the world—for me. Even when I was in school, I dreamed of being a fulltime author someday. I’m also grateful that I was given the chance to do what I love. Like with any job, it takes a certain amount of self-discipline not to be distracted by social media, cat videos, or the like and to knuckle down and get to work. But I love what I do and it’s not hard to stay motivated. I have a wife and five kids to support, after all! While I don’t miss the cubicle life, I’m grateful for all that I learned working for Intel. Some of it has even inspired my writing.
Do you have any advice for authors who are still trying to get a foot in the door?
Persistence and practice. I’ve studied the lives of successful people from all disciplines and the one thing they all have in common in uncommon persistence. That’s especially true in a field where there is so much rejection. I had 42 agents tell me no. I still don’t have an agent. But I refused to quit. What I didn’t realize was that my publisher hadn’t even been born yet. Timing is everything. And about practice, I heard from Terry Brooks (the man who inspired me to write), who attributed the quote to Stephen King, that after you’ve written your first million words, then you’re ready to start being an author. A million of anything is a lot. So practice. And keep practicing.
You have nothing but praise for your developmental editor. Many authors don’t know what developmental editors are or how they can help. Why did you decide that the Whispers of Mirrowen books needed a structural edit? What have you learned about the process that you can share with our readers?
I didn’t even realize that developmental editors existed until I landed my first publishing deal. My publisher, 47North, assigned a dev editor to work with me on the Mirrowen series. They didn’t do that with Muirwood because it was already on the market and already doing quite well with readers! So they re-packaged it, did some general grammatical fixing, and then recorded the audio and boom, it was ready. But I’ve found having a dev editor to be an incredibly beneficial part of my writing process. If I had known what they were and what they did, I would have used them back when I started. Even when I self-publish books, I use my team. Their input is incredibly valuable to me.
You went from a dedicated cubicle professional to a WSJ bestseller in just a few short years. How does it feel to be such a successful author and do you have any words of wisdom to pass along to writers hoping for success like yours?
Sometimes I do pinch myself to make sure it’s not all a dream. But to be honest, it feels very normal now. I try to foster an attitude of gratitude and appreciation every single day. It is an enormous blessing to do for a living what you love, and I certainly haven’t gotten tired of it at all. It’s a privilege having fans, impacting them in some small way, and an honor hearing from them. I try to be responsive because I remember what it felt like to hear back from authors I admired. Back in the day you had to mail them letters! That’s one of the reasons I said yes to this interview.
You just revealed that you are halfway through writing a new series. What can we expect from this new series? Can you give us any hints?
I never do spoilers! The pre-order page is live along with the stunning cover art for STORM GLASS. This series will be longer than my normal ones (5 books instead of the usual 3) and will feature two main characters who see the world and the plot from very different points of view. Both characters are fun to write and sometimes I struggle as to which POV I want to focus on next. The setting will be sort of Dickensian. That’s it. No more teasers!