This interview is for the r/fantasy regulars, contributors, and those who were along the way for Josiah’s journey from the days of self-publishing to “Look, Mum, I’m an author now, for real!” vindication years later. Josiah Bancroft recently debuted his self-published, now officially published, Senlin Ascends, a novel that harkens back to the days of nineteenth century adventure novels. Quirky, offbeat, and at times bizarre, Senlin proves that, sometimes, a bit of magic, luck, and good old perseverance really can make all your dreams come true. Well, I’m not talking about Disney, unfortunately. I’m proud to present this interview with Josiah. BAWKKKKKK!
AB: Hello, Josiah! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview! I’ve been looking forward to this for some time! And congratulations on your novel’s early success.
For those unfamiliar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself? Who is Josiah Bancroft: author, indie success, Master of the Rings—Not Lord, that’d be copyright infringement.
JB: I’m a closeted artist, recovering poet, lapsed English teacher, and rock and roller who lives in Philadelphia with my wife, Sharon. We have pet bunnies and a baby on the way.
AB: Like a true Renaissance man! Starting off, your novel, Senlin Ascends, is the first part of a trilogy called The Books of Babel. What is it about and why did you decide a trilogy instead of, say, a standalone?
JB: It’s actually a four-book series, which I’m too self-conscious to call a quadrilogy or a tetralogy. Maybe I should call it a “foursie.” Writing a standalone probably would’ve been the sensible choice, but the story I had in mind was just too big. I had a very clear idea of the character arc I wanted to create, which is full of ups and downs, and I needed space to allow for growth, collapse, and redemption. I’ve been asked why I didn’t just write the whole thing out as a single volume, and the simple answer is, it would’ve taken me eight years and been 1600 pages long, and I’m not Neal Stephenson.
AB: Breaking the three act structure!? Such a rebel. But it does explain the almost television season like feel to each book with their respective stories. Good, good! What were some of your influences for Senlin Ascends? We’ve briefly spoken about this before that the novels were influenced by 19th century stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, but what were the ones that really inspired Senlin?
JB: I’ve talked a lot about how influential Victorian-era adventure novels were on the series, and how the genesis of the whole idea began with the magical realist author Italo Calvino. But the influences range more broadly than that. There’s a little bit of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a touch of Kafka’s The Castle, a soupçon of Sartre’s Nausea, and a shovel full of Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a kitchen sink sort of book, really.
AB: Quite an eclectic bunch, but it’s always interesting to see how other genres, especially, many of the authors you mentioned were influential on both social and philosophical movements of the 20th century. The novel revolves around the legendary Tower of Babel, and in particular, one Thomas Senlin, the schoolmaster, and his desperate journey up the Tower. The Tower of Babylon is an iconic structure used in countless other stories, but here, the Tower has survived in an alternate history, I’m assuming? How did you go about designing the Tower, the ringdoms stacked on ringdoms? And is there a ringdom where only cows graze in green pastures?
JB: It’s more of an alternate universe than an alternate history. The Tower is not part of our timeline or this reality. It does contain a lot of familiar things, both cultural and technological, but it still insists on its own bizarre sort of logic.
The Tower as a whole, I understand entirely because its purpose and machinations are essential to the plot. But I discover the individual ringdoms only as I need them. I have seven of the sixty-four ringdoms fully designed, and a few more sketched out, but there are still many ringdoms that I don’t know the first thing about. I decided early in the process to use Thomas Senlin as my probe into the Tower, as a means for exploring and realizing its dimensions. Senlin’s story arc won’t come close to exhausting the mysteries of the Tower. I’m leaving myself the option of exploring the Tower further through new characters and storylines in the future. So, who knows? There very well may be a ringdom devoted entirely to pastures and cattle.
AB: I enjoy this approach myself. Having a solid outline initially but discovering the story along with the character often produces a story more organic, more authentic. I also love how you leave some levels unexplored, a hint of things that could play out in later novels. If you had to choose, what is your favorite ringdom and why?
JB: It changes. Today, I’m pretty enamored with the Baths, probably because I’m getting over the flu and could do with a nice day at the spa. Public executions notwithstanding, the Baths also embodies the salon culture that I find quite appealing. I always enjoy being surrounded by talented artists and thinkers.
AB: Will it be cigars or wine in the parlor, as we discuss the Tower’s ever shifting trade routes, Mr. Bancroft? I must say. Moving forward, the main character of the novel, Thomas Senlin, is a throwback to 19th century protagonists: a man of “reason” and logic. He’s the kind of man who thinks he knows much, prepares for the worst, and then when he actually arrives? Well, that’s the crux of his struggle. Tell me, who is Senlin, how did you create him, and did you revel in his emotional torment as you wrote him?
JB: At the start, Senlin is a man of principle without much self-knowledge. He’s lived an insular existence, which has allowed him to conceive of the world as he pleases, to avoid the things he doesn’t understand or enjoy, and to reinforce his illusions with his studies and rituals. As a result, he’s a little smug, a little prickly, and a little slow to adjust his expectations. What redeems him, I think, is the fact that he does have a conscience, and despite the flaws and gaps in his knowledge, he is a student of the world. As such, he can learn—albeit slowly—to adapt.
I don’t know if I revel in his torments so much as I sympathize with them. Like Senlin, I’ve made mistakes out of naivety and arrogance. I’ve overestimated my abilities and been a bad judge of character. That’s not to suggest that I am Senlin: I’m much too good looking and humble for that, but I do feel for him.
AB: Of course, Mr. Bancroft, Senlin pales in comparison to your glory! And what of Marya? While she’s the catalyst for Senlin’s search, how does she develop on her own? There are hints throughout the novel of her own actions, little traces of her. Did you ever consider another point of view and showing the story from her perspective?
JB: Marya’s story comes out slowly over the course of the series, but it does come out. One of the things Senlin has to come to grips with is the fact that he never really knew his wife very well. In fact, he couldn’t know her because he spent so much time thinking about how he conceived of her, what she meant to him, and why he did or did not deserve her. In many ways, he fell in love with a figment.
Marya’s story gets told and retold through the course of the first three books by everyone except her. I wrote the story this way because I’m fascinated by how quick we are to overwrite one another, to take control of the narrative of other peoples’ lives so that we can explain them, critique them, and feel more secure in our own existence for having done so. We create little iconic ideals of people and then enjoy worshiping them or burning them in effigy. Culturally, we do this obsessively with celebrities, and with the pseudo-celebrity of social media, we’ve begun to do it more and more within our intimate social spheres, I think. What gets lost, of course, is a respect for each other’s autonomy, complexity, and natural inconsistency, things that we tend to treasure in ourselves. Marya will eventually have a chance to reclaim her story, though once told, it may not be what people expect.
AB: A phantom woven together by the expectations and assumptions of others. It’s always fascinating to see how characters build up another character, and the truth about them is rarely black and white, it’s often this messy smudge of colors mixed together. And I do love bucking the expectations of the reader! Drawing back, what is the world and greater setting of Senlin Ascends like? Given the references to a Silk Age, and elements of 19th century science, can we assume this is an alternate world where the Tower of Babel survived? That’s a huge change in history, if it is.
JB: That would be a huge change. But the world I’ve conceived of is pure fantasy, pure other. It’s like a reflection of our world in a funhouse mirror: some parts are pinched off, others are grossly exaggerated. I’ll tell you what it actually is: It’s an amalgam of my childhood influences. I was fascinated with antiquity when I was a kid, and I liked Victorian adventure stories, and my father was a preacher, so I learned a lot of bible stories (though the books are not religious). I loved fine art books and hot air balloons, so I threw those in, too. I wish I could put this world into some sort of meaningful context for everyone, but this is just my jumbled dream. Which is understandably confusing because it pulls from so many familiar sources of inspiration. But the nation of Ur is as far from us as Middle-earth.
AB: But I dreamed of Babylon eternally, forever out of reach, forever within mankind’s dying memories. See, that’s what I love about writing and authors: they each have an amalgamation of influences, inspirations, which rarely come from just the fantasy genre, but other mediums, other muses. Thank you for sharing that. Switching tracks, you are considered one of several self-published success stories in recent years. How did you go about devising your business strategy? Building your fanbase? Given where you are now, you clearly did something right. What were the early years like?
JB: The early years were like being locked in a refrigerator inside an elevator that was plummeting toward the ground. I set modest goals and fell far short of all of them. The only thing I did right was to persist, and I barely managed to do that. My success is the product of much good luck and a little politeness. I wouldn’t hold myself up as an exemplar of self-publishing. There are many cleverer and more successful self-publishers out there who have functional formulas for promoting and moving their books. For example, Michael J. Sullivan has a lot of salient advice for self-publishers, and Phil Tucker has built a wonderful, thriving readership as a self-publisher. I, on the other hand, wore silly costumes and stood around at comic-cons selling my books one at a time. I wrote ad copy that possessed all the verve of a prescription drug disclaimer. I blogged, flogged, and branded with all the forethought of a tennis shoe in a tumble dryer. I did everything wrong. I was a sincere, hard-working, but thoroughly lousy self-publisher. I am here because the universe decided it would be funny, I think.
AB: Life is often the greatest prankster of them all. Even Loki would do well to avoid its equal opportunity tormenting gaze. It’s funny, though, how life really does work out the way it does, sometimes. Still, the quality of your book is what allowed it to flourish. Also, did you try querying Senlin or did you go straight into self-publishing?
JB: I wrote Senlin to self-publish it. After a year of little interest and fewer sales, I shopped it around to about 100 agents and maybe 50 or 60 publishers. I have a really depressing spreadsheet with those details somewhere. This was during the time when people in the industry were going nuts for YA. Everyone wanted the next Hunger Games. As you know, my book is a little weird. It doesn’t really fit into any genre neatly, and it doesn’t really participate in any particular zeitgeist. It’s its own thing, which I love, but in an era of Katniss-clones, it didn’t attract any interest. And many people took the fact that it had failed on the self-publishing market as evidence that it would fail on the traditional publishing market. I had effectively sabotaged any chance of Senlin being published. Or so I thought.
AB: It’s always a balance between genre conventions and that extra spark of uniqueness, or the angle that hasn’t been explored before. And Senlin, I can tell, is a labor of love, a book that really doesn’t fit into a particular subgenre. Retro-Victorianism? No, that does not quite work. The irony is, though, the early success you’ve had thus far. Despite all the marketing, the hype, and other cross industry synergy terms, sometimes, taking a chance on a “quirky” novel pays off. That’s business, and that’s the difference, unfortunately, a lot of the time with novels such as Senlin.
Winding down, I’m particular about cover art. And Ian Leino…I feel a major draw of your book initially is frankly Ian’s evocative art. The composition, the color scheme, the little details of various cultures/civilizations represented on the Tower, there’s a clear labor of love that went into this cover. And it really does set it apart from others. How did you and Ian come up with it? Did you go through different iterations?
JB: Back when I was selling copies of Senlin Ascends at comic-cons, I got to see in person just how effective Ian’s cover was at catching people’s attention. It pulled folks in and convinced them to pick the book up and read the blurb. I’ve been told by lots of people that they bought the book purely because of the cover. And the fact that Orbit Books elected to keep the cover is a testament to how wonderful it is.
Before creating the cover, Ian asked me a few questions about what general aesthetic I had in mind. I gave him a few suggestions for a general era of art. We agreed that we wanted something that harkened back to the 1940-50’s science fiction paperbacks, and we wanted something iconic. But the vision is purely his. There weren’t any other versions, at least not that I saw.
AB: And I’m glad you and Ian stuck with it. The cover truly does capture the aesthetic woven into the descriptions in your novel. It has its own, jeez, excuse my marketing lingo, “brand”, so to speak. With Senlin Ascends currently available, and Arm of the Sphinx coming out soon, what is the next novel and what lies beyond The Books of Babel? Perhaps a Raygun gothic reimagining?
JB: I don’t know. I have a few ideas. After I finish the series, I might like to try my hand at sci-fi, but it’ll probably be a strange mashup of genres. I’m a sucker for cyberpunk, and I’ve been glad to see some renewed interest in the genre. Or I might try my hand at something more in the magical realist vein. I have an old idea about a traveling salesman, a witch, and a bunch of American urban legends that I’ve been batting around for a decade or so. Perhaps I’ll dust that off.
AB: I am looking forward to anything like that. A modern version of Something Wicked This Way Comes? Yes, please. Where can readers find out more about you?
JB: I have a website where I blog occasionally at http://www.thebooksofbabel.com, and I’m on Twitter @theBooksofBabel, and Instagram @booksofbabel.
AB: Before we go, I have to ask: if you had to face a last stand against a horde of undying demons, what would be your weapon and how would you fight to your last breath?
JB: Probably a cheese board. I find that sometimes these supernatural squabbles have just been blown completely out of proportion. What we sometimes need is a little brie, maybe a blob of cherry chutney, a few toast points, and a nice bottle of wine. Worst case scenario, I die with a pleasant taste in my mouth. Best case scenario, I make some new leathery friends.
AB: Ever a gentleman, even in the face of unpleasant demise. Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions! I wish you and Ian all the best!
JB: Thank you for your thoughtful and entertaining questions, Allan. It’s been a lot of fun.