By calling his new book We Are Not Good People, you might think writer Jeff Somers has penned a confessional tome by a politician, professional athlete, or a guy in Coldplay. But in talking to Somers about this fantasy novel (Gallery Books: paperback, digital), it’s clear that there’s something more magical at work than just some guy admitting his sins.
I always like to start at the beginning: What is We Are Not Good People about, and where did you get the idea for it?
I’ve now summarized this book so often I can recite this summary in my sleep, and I sound like an advertising executive when I do so. Thus, modern publishing turns us all into ad men.
In We Are Not Good People, magic is very real, known only to a small, hidden community of people known as ustari, and fueled by blood. To cast a spell, you have to know the very specific vocabulary of the magical language, and shed some blood, your own or someone else’s. Powerful mages can do incredible things, but must bleed dozens or even millions, to fuel the spell. The more blood, the more powerful the spell.
My lead characters refuse to bleed anyone but themselves, which restricts the spells they can cast to small magicks, which they use in their attempts to be grifters and small time con men. When they stumble upon a dead girl in a bathtub, they become ensnared in the build-up to a massive spell that could mean the end of the world…and they have to make some hard choices.
The idea came to me a long time ago, actually, this image of an old man floating a few inches off the ground. What really brought it home though was this epiphany I had after watching a decade’s worth of superhero and fantasy films: Magic ought to cost something. It’s as simple as that. If you can cast a spell to turn your enemies into dust just by learning a few words and gestures, that’s just completely lame.
In my universe, magic has a price. Your only choice or wiggle room is who pays that price: you, or some poor sucker who never saw you coming.
We Are Not Good People is the third novel in what you’re calling the Ustari Cycle. How does it relate, chronologically and narratively, to the first two books in this series, Trickster and Fixer?
Well, actually, it’s complicated. Let me explain. No, it is too much. Let me summarize.
Trickster was published in 2013 as Book 1 of the Ustari Cycle. The sequel was supposed to be a book called Fabricator, which, when Trickster came out, was a pile of drunken notes and some pretty filthy doodles. It was suggested I write a short story that could be given away as a free eBook that would bridge the two books, so I wrote a piece called Negotiator.
Something was off about Trickster in mass market format as a straight-on urban fantasy. My publisher and my agent and I had some awkward conversations about it, which usually devolved into inebriated wrestling matches, and we came up with this great idea: Combine Trickster and Fabricator into one book! This necessitated putting Negotiator in there as well, as it literally became Part II in a much larger novel. So I wrote another short piece that could be a free eBook, which is Fixer. We Are Not Good People is thus Trickster + Negotiator + Fabricator.
Fixer is a prequel to the book, showing us a glimpse of the main characters as they begin their descent into squalor and desperation. That’s where we meet them in We Are Not Good People, at the bottom of that slide.
As for the chronological cohesion of the whole story, it gets complicated in the second half of the book.
Oy! So, do you know how many books you’ll ultimately have in the Ustari Cycle, and was this something you knew from the beginning or did you decide it later?
No, as I said before, it was originally two books, then two books plus a short story, then one combined book plus a new short story. I’m exhausted. I’m generally what scientists call a “pantser” in the sense that I’m constantly confused and forget what I was doing just moments before, so I make everything up as I go along. Which goes for a book series as much as anything else, so I never have any idea how many books a series will be — or if it will even be a series — ahead of time.
That said, I have sequel ideas.
How close is We Are Not Good People to what you originally envisioned?
As far as tone, universe, and characters? Spot on. Plotting is always a mystery to me, I never know where the story is going. I’m as surprised as anyone else, so I didn’t really have a vision or anything.
Except for the level of profanity, which is high. That’s exactly what I’d always planned.
And is there anything you thought to do in We Are Not Good People, but then you realized you’d done something in Trickster or Fixer that made it impossible?
Well, that happens all the time when you plot the way I do. Which is to say, not at all. You’re writing along merrily, sipping from some unmarked mason jar of bespoke liquors and singing “Sunday Girl” by Blondie over and over again to your cats, and then you have what in chess is called a brilliancy. A great idea that transforms your work in progress to something you’re really excited about.
Of course, sometimes it’s not nearly as brilliant as you think. And even if it is, sometimes the price is that it screws up all your crazy plotting so far, and you have to go back and revise heavily or just start over with the new twist in mind. And then it happens again. That’s what writing this was like: a new idea every ten thousand words that made me really happy, but totally messed up what I’d already done.
So is there a good reason you didn’t call this third book We Are Not Good Peopler?
No. I don’t have a good reason for that at all. In my little circle, I’m famous for terrible titles. My agent, in fact, likes to humiliate me after a few drinks by telling everyone the original titles to some of my books, usually to uproarious laughter. So We Are Not Good People is made of win as far as I am concerned.
We Are Not Good People is, as you said, centered around magic and mages. What other works of fiction — be they novels, comics, games, or movies — influenced how magic and mages would work in the book?
Almost all of my work is influenced by detective fiction to some extent. The regular guy hero who has no power and has to survive on his wits, the violence of groups working against each other, the extralegal atmosphere, that’s all there.
I’m attracted to magic systems that have rules and costs, so in a very strange way such role-playing games as Dungeons & Dragons influenced this book. I haven’t played in decades, but when I was a kid I went through a phase where I played a lot of D&D. The rules for casting spells and such always appealed to me because it forced you to think tactically, and that carries over into this book. When you have to bleed for every spell, you have to be careful how you react in combat.
And as I’ve mentioned before a few times, L. Frank Baum had this moment in one of the Oz books where he printed a magic word that supposedly allowed anyone who spoke it to transform into an animal, but in the book he wrote that he felt safe reprinting it because he didn’t think anyone would be able to pronounce it correctly. That concept stayed with me and no doubt played a role in the other side of my magic system: the Words.
Have you ever had anyone get mad at you because you present magic in one way, and they think you’re just wrong, wrong, wrong?
Not so far. In fact, the reaction to this book’s magic system has been overwhelmingly positive, people seem to think it’s a really cool idea.
How about your style, who do you consider to be the biggest influences on both what you write and how you write?
As I said, detective fiction plays a huge role in my style and tone, I think. When I was young I read a lot of high fantasy, then shifted to science fiction, and then in college got religion and tried to be very literary. Then slowly circled back. So Hammett, Chandler, Jim Thompson, Jack L. Chalker, Stephen R. Donaldson. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Parker, Elmore Leonard, Patrica Highsmith, David Foster Wallace. It’s all a mishmash, frankly. I don’t think there’s one single influence, it’s all about reading as widely as you can and stealing from everything.
Finally, We Are Not Good People is not your first novel. If someone enjoys it, which of your books would you recommend they read next and why?
The Avery Cates series, definitely, starting with The Electric Church. Avery and Lem are cut from the same cloth, and while the Cates books are science fiction, there are overlapping themes of what it means to be moral or good, the price of free agency and power. Avery is a bad man and a violent man, but over the course of the books he realizes that while he can be the most powerful man in any room because he’d willing to do terrible things, the larger his world becomes the less powerful he is.
Plus, there’s cyborg monks who kidnap people, extract their brains, and imprison them in robot bodies for eternity. You can’t lose!