Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
It’s no secret that Utah has more than it’s fair share of wildly talented authors and as a librarian here I’ve had the great good fortune of meeting quite a few. One author in particular, though, stands out for me simply because it’s been so much fun watching him work his way from local author to world-dominating bestseller and international movie mogul (or something like that.) Make no mistake, it was clearly hard work, as he’ll tell you himself if you’d like to hear the story (it’s a good one) and I’ve only been observing from afar, like most readers, so it’s not like I have the gritty details. But, having been on the receiving end (by way of my job) of his impressive “pound the pavement” approach, he’s been on my radar for a long time now and it’s irrationally gratifying to see so many good things happen for him. Because you know what? He deserves good things.
It’s not just the great storytelling (though I was a fan all the way back to the first Jimmy Fincher, which I think I first read as an entry in the Utah Speculative Fiction Award contest lo so many years ago) that makes me say that. Great storytelling he has in spades, sure, but it’s his graciousness and enthusiasm, good humor and kindness, that made James Dashner stand out–those qualities radiated from him the first time he approached my desk at the library carrying a stack of his books. He believed in himself, which is kind of rare and super infectious, but he was also just plain nice. He was the kind of person you remember, in other words, even before I read the first page of A Door in the Woods.
So basically, if you haven’t joined Dashner’s Army yet, you probably should. Read the books. See the movie tomorrow. And pay attention, because my guess is that this is only the beginning. Thanks, James, for taking the time–in the midst of all the madness–to answer my questions, for writing “tail-kicking” stories, and for making a lasting impression. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope you stay choked up for a long time.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
Dork. Nerd. Geek. Must I go on? I did well in school, but storytelling was always my passion. Movies, theater, books. I always wanted to be a storyteller and wrote a lot in high school. I also saw a lot of movies and read a lot of Stephen King novels.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I wanted to be an author or make movies. My practical side knew that was sometimes tough, so I had all kinds of backup plans–I even became a CPA and worked as an accountant for several years, but I never gave up on the dream. I always kept writing, even when I was working full time.
What were your high school years like?
I had a really good time in high school, even though I was a dork among dorks. I accepted that role and had some good friends and lots of great memories. I grew up in Georgia, and I was either studying, playing basketball, or reading books or watching movies most of the time. I had an English teacher who takes all the credit for my successâ€”Mrs. Becker. Okay, deservedly so. She was fantastic and encouraged my, shall we say, creative take on English class. One example: my senior thesis for AP English was a collection of ridiculously silly limericks. And I got an A!
What were some of your passions during that time?
Stephen King for sure. And any movie, every movie. I saw them all and all of those movies have certainly influenced how I tell stories. I wasn’t that great at it, but I always loved basketball, still do, and try to play when I get the chance. I also remember going through a weird Shakespeare phase, especially Hamlet. I was a little obsessed. I think it was because of the Mel Gibson movie that came out when I was in high school. As for music, I was always a classic rock kind of guy. Led Zeppelin, Rush, Van Halen, Ozzy.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
The death of my grandpa was a tough one. It was my first experience with death, and it was totally unexpected. It struck me hard, and laid the groundwork for what would happen to me in my twentiesâ€”the far-too-premature death of my own dad. I think it helped me empathize and help others throughout my life when they’ve had to deal with loss. And, not surprisingly, there’s no doubt it impacted my writing.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
My high school had an outstanding theater department. I wasn’t much of a singer, and they always seemed to do musicals, so I was mostly on the sidelines, watching from the seats. But seeing some of those awesome productions, often more than once, just further amplified my desire to be a storyteller, one way or another. West Side Story was one that I’ll never forget.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
I’m not sure he’d listen, but I wish so badly I could go back and tell myself not to worry so much about what others think about you. Be yourself, always. If someone doesn’t like that, then why on EARTH would you want to be friends with them? I struggled with that sometimes.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
I’m not sure I have regretsâ€”I did some stupid things and could’ve done a lot more good. But those formative years turned me into who I am, the good and the bad. And I wouldn’t dare risk losing what I have today in terms of family and career.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
I miss my family, so much. Summer trips to Grandma’s, Christmas, Thanksgiving, so many good memories. If I could time travel, I’d go relive those days every once in a while.
Every Day I Write the Book
â€œMovies, without a doubt…are the number one inspiration for me as a writer,â€ you’ve said. In fact, when asked to describe your secret superhero power, you pointed to your ability to watch movies: â€œI’m much better at it than you are. In fact, no one on the planet of Earth . . . is as brilliantly brilliant at watching movies as I am. I can enjoy any movie on any level at any time.â€ You say that you learn something from every movie you watch and I wonder, do you take a movie at face value while watching it and then think about it more carefully later, or are you able to do both simultaneously? Are there any â€œlessons learnedâ€ from movies that might surprise us? Which movies have influenced you the most, both personally and in your writing?
I’m not sure it’s something I can describe in a lot of detail. Movies just open up the creative side of my mind and get me excited to write. It boils down to this: I love storytelling, in any form, and movies are the best, most immediate, most visceral way to experience a complete story. Think about all the things you can learn in two hours: plot, pacing, dialogue, character development, story structure, etc. Whenever I’m in a rut, a movie is the best cure. I’d say the movies that have most affected me are The Matrix, Aliens, Lord of the Rings, Inception, Star Wars . . . I could go on and on!
In addition to movies, you’ve talked a lot about your general love of pop culture. Among other things, you’ve mentioned listening to movie sound tracks while you write, talked about your belief that we’re living in â€œthe Golden Age of Television, my friends,â€ and revealed that you’d choose Imagine Dragons to do the sound track to The Eye of Minds, should the opportunity arise. Would you share your most powerful pop cultural influences and a little about why or how they influence you? And since it’s appropriate to the question and I know that you’re a fellow list lover, let’s do it in the form of a Top Ten List.
1. Stephen King: Nothing triggers the desire to read like hearing that name. From high school on, he’s been my favorite author.
2. Star Wars: My first memory of movie magic. Nothing has ever matched it.
3. Led Zeppelin: My older brothers sucked me in when I was pretty young, and their music, in my humble opinion, is so much more epic and eternal than anything else, ever.
4. Back to the Future: This movie and its sequels hit me at just the right time, middle school and high school. Each one was just a major event.
5. Star Trek: I saw all the movies with my dad, and remember so distinctly all the speculation between the second and third movies on whether Spock was actually dead.
6. Dean Koontz: I read a lot of his books in the ’90s, and I feel like his style really influenced my future writing. Creepy, fast-paced, lots of surprises, and exploring different types of stories.
7. Harry Potter: J. K. Rowling is an absolute genius. I have zero doubt that the final thing that fell into place for my determination to become an author was the publication of this series.
8. Les MisÃ©rables: My favorite musical, and favorite book. Nothing has ever matched this story in pulling emotion out of me, and I’ll spend the rest of my writing days trying to duplicate it.
9. Lord of the Rings: The movies and the sound track. So many of my books have been written to this music, and I’ve never been so lost in storytelling as when watching the films.
10. Lost: The first time I ever truly fell in love with a TV show. Its influence on the Maze Runner series is pretty obvious, I think.
On a slightly more serious note, each of your books features strong, complicated relationships that serve as both a contrast to the often-horrific events of the story and a center that holds the nonstop action together. Friendship plays an especially important role, and I’m interested in what draws you to examine that particular type of relationship so frequently? Do the dynamics between your characters ever steer the story in a particular direction, or does plot always dictate how your characters relate to each other?
Thank you for saying this, because developing characters is not an easy thing for me. I’ve worked hard to get better at it, and I know I have a long way to go. But story without compelling characters is worthless. You have to care about them. And I really love characters that are complicated, with layers. I love heroes with flaws and villains for whom you feel empathy. That’s what I try to do with my characters. Plot probably comes first and easiest to me, but then I try hard to focus on its effects on the people in the story.
In various interviews you’ve held that the â€œmain point is [always] to entertain and write a fun, cool story,â€ not â€œto purposefully try to inject a messageâ€ for readers. Still, â€œmoral dilemmas and philosophical questions will naturally arise,â€ and the main theme is often that â€œnothing in the world is black-and-white.â€ Questions of whether the end justifies the means and what lengths people will go to in order to survive recur in many of your stories, despite their being very different in other ways, and I wonder if you could talk a little more about the idea that maybe there are no moral absolutes? Do you have a sense of what draws you to explore that theme in particular, however inadvertently or secondarily?
Yes, this concept is very important to me. I very purposefully used the sentence â€œWICKED is goodâ€ in The Maze Runner to symbolize that bigger picture. Opposites set up as equals. By the end, I wanted readers to find themselves having transitioned from despising WICKED to â€œsorta kindaâ€ understanding them. It’s that terrible question, like, if you could kill one child in cold blood and as a result cure cancer (no matter how ridiculous that premise might be), would you do it? Instinctively, no, but you’d have to at least think about it. I just don’t think anyone or anything is purely evil or purely good. We’re all gray, and I love exploring that.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from Gene Luen Yang: James! So great to meet you! Like me, you’re both a father and a writer. As a father, you protect and nurture your children. As a writer, you put them in the Glade. Do you ever find one of your roles getting in the way of the other? What do your children (the biological ones, not the fictional ones) think of your books?
Nice to meet you, too! You’re right, it’s a little crazy that I can care for and love my children so much and then put the poor characters from my books into such horrible situations. Maybe it’s my way of deflecting the universe from letting bad things happen to my actual, living, breathing creations. But they do intersect in the sense that I feel really bad for my characters. I’ve even cried for them. (I say this hoping that you’re just as insane as I am.) As for what my kids think of me, they’ve kind of grown up with dad being a boring old author, but now with the whole movie thing, they FINALLY think I’m somewhat, barely, kind of cool.
James has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Andrew Smith. Watch for an interview with him coming soon!
James was born and raised in Georgia but now lives in the Rocky Mountains with his family. He has four kids, which some might think is too many but he thinks is just right. Once upon a time, James studied accounting and worked in the field of finance, but has been writing full time for several years. (He doesn’t miss numbers. At all.)
In his free time, James loves to read, watch movies and (good) TV shows, snow ski, and read. (Reading was mentioned twice on purpose.) Most of all, he’s thankful that he gets to make a living writing stories and considers himself pretty much the luckiest guy on the planet.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue Deconnick and Emma Rios and the last couple chapters (as slowly as possible) of A.S. King’s Glory O’ Brien’s History of the Future