The Christmas present that stands out most in my memory was given to me when I was 16. We opened our presents on Christmas Eve. At that age, I expected clothes and practical gifts. Somehow, my mother knew to give me the boxed set of The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t read any fantasy before this. So I was curious. I slipped into my bedroom around nine o’clock and began reading. I read until the Nazgul’s pursuit of the Hobbits became too intense. I put the book down, dreamed about the book all night, picked up The Fellowship of the Ring the next morning, and never came up for air for the rest of the holiday. I had to finish those books.
The Lord of the Rings started me on a lifelong love of fantasy. My master’s thesis was on fantasy literature. I enjoyed reading Cabell, Lord Dunsany, Peake, Le Guin, Moorcock, McKillip, McKinley, Susan Cooper, Walton, Kurtz, Nesbit … I devoured them.
But at a certain point, fantasy literature felt repetitive to me, with stock characters, and predictable plots. I seldom read it anymore, which is a sad thing.
But last September I met the author of a series about Jinx. She talked about the book as though I should know it … and I was curious. So I began Jinx, then had to find Jinx’s Magic the next day, and Jinx’s Fire a couple of days later. These are good books with characters I hadn’t encountered before in a world of wizards and magicians and a deep connection to the forests. It’s funny and magical and features a lot of warm and captivating relationships. The main character, Jinx, is complex and likeable. There’s a good balance between dialogue, description, action, a fast pace, and time to breathe. The main character starts out at age 12 and grows to age 14 so this is the right book to place in the hands of readers ages 10 and up (through adult).
I was so enthralled by Jinx’s tale that I had to ask the author, Sage Blackwood, a few questions:
Did you construct the Urwald, Samara, and the surrounding countries before you began writing the first book, Jinx? Or did you invent the geography as you went along?
The Urwald came first— years before the story, in fact. Samara I think also came before the story; I remember drawing pictures of it. The surrounding countries weren’t really developed till I needed them.
Did you know the ending of Jinx’s Fire (Book 3) when you began Jinx (Book 1)?
As regards the Bonemaster, yes, but the autonomy of the trees was something that developed as I wrote. I gradually realized that if the Urwald was a living entity, then like any other character, it had to have agency and flaws… and a Last Straw.
This series is founded on the balance between good and evil. Did you start writing with this premise or did you discover it during your writing process?
I think I started out not really believing in evil. At least not of the hand-rubbing “Mwuhaha! Cringe before me, mortals!” variety. So I guess it developed as I wrote: Each of the major characters has at some point touched evil. Not just as a victim, but as a perpetrator or potential perpetrator. And each character is changed by the experience. That’s what evil is— something we all either face down, or embrace. Fortunately relatively few of us do the latter.
And, of course, we can’t always tell it’s evil at the time. Evil can come disguised as an unfortunate necessity, or a great job offer.
What aspect of your story underwent the most change during the writing of the three books?
Jinx himself, I think. At first he was a polite, diffident boy. Then it became clear that he was never going to survive being raised by Simon. Not with his protagonisthood intact, anyway. So he had to toughen up and develop a sardonic edge, and I really became much fonder of him when he did.
I love the ambiguity of your main characters. They seem fully human for this reason. Does this part of crafting a character come naturally to you or is it an effort?
Thank you. It is an effort, but not one I would forego. It’s important that each major character could conceivably be the protagonist, if the story were slewed around a bit. And this is how they see themselves, of course. None of us are sidekicks in real life.
Jinx can’t exactly read minds but he can see auras that show how a person is really feeling. This is one of the most exciting aspects of your books. How did this character quality come to you?
It happened while I was writing the early scenes. Emotions kept coming up in a very visual way, and I realized that that was because I was writing from Jinx’s point of view and that’s what he was actually seeing.
Do you have an affection for trees?
Oh yes! I am a tree-hugger. I spent a lot of time walking in the forest while I was writing Jinx, and this was where I realized that the trees talk to each other — something science was apparently also discovering at more or less the same moment. (People keep sending me articles about this.)
Your over-arching villain, The Bonemaster, is so reprehensible that it’s hard for me to have his presence in the story. How do you figure out the parameters of an evil character?
Well, I had to remember that as far as he was concerned, he was the hero of the story. A good villain should always think he’s the hero. It’s what villains think in real life.
Therefore, a villain needs values. They can be horrible ones, but he’s got to have them. He has to have a self-constructed ideal he’s living up to. (This is where some Dark Lords fall short.)
How long does it take you to finish writing a book from first draft to the editor receiving your manuscript?
About a year, if I’ve got my act together. Before that there’s a period of drawing pictures, taking notes, and hanging index cards on the wall.
Have you been a long-time fantasy reader? If so, which are your favorite books or series?
Like you, I loved Lord of the Rings as a kid. Later I grew disillusioned with the genre. Then I discovered Diana Wynne Jones. She was such a fresh, new voice, seeing the humor in the genre and the magic at the same time. And the way she establishes a world on page one without ever lapsing into mere description… I couldn’t believe everyone wasn’t talking about her!
It was 20 years before I finally met a Diana Wynne Jones fan I hadn’t created, as it were. Now it turns out she was a major influence on many (most?) of us who are writing middle grade fantasy today. We just all found her one way or another.
Some of my favorites of hers are Drowned Ammet, Cart and Cwidder, The Lives of Christopher Chant, and The Homeward Bounders (which is probably structurally her best novel).
Beyond Jones, the Harry Potter series is also wonderful. And I absolutely love Terry Pratchett— perhaps as much for the language as anything else.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sage. Your series of Jinx books ranks right up there with my favorite fantasies of all time.
Thanks so much, Vicki; that’s wonderful to hear. And thank you for coming up with all these great questions that were fun to answer!