Everyone loves a good old-fashioned success story and James Dashner has a great one. A certified accountant by day, by sheer willpower and hard work, Dashner was able to quit his day job and pursue full-time his dream of being a published author. Now, one global, post-apocalyptic YA multi-media franchise later—a little fable called The Maze Runner may ring a bell—plus four more multi-book sagas under his belt, Dashner has cornered the market on roller-coaster, parallel reality speculative fiction.
In our interview, we talked about the mysteries of the writing process, the reading habits of teenagers, the King of American Literature (a.k.a. Stephen King), and the universe.
I first came to your novels when my daughter was born. For the first few days of her life I was exhausted and needed something absorbing, so we listened nonstop to the audiobook of your breakout success, ‘The Maze Runner.’ Technically it’s the first book she’s ever read. (She was very impressed.) Now that it has become a global franchise, what is your feeling toward ‘The Maze Runner’? How is it different from when you were originally crafting the story?
James Dashner: Ha! I love that story! Hopefully we’ve sufficiently scarred your daughter for life. The Maze Runner has now been a 12-year journey for me, and you can imagine how surreal it is to see everything that’s become of it. Surprisingly, when I think of it, I still imagine those initial images that first came to me and proved to be the backbone of both the novels and the movies – the Maze, the Scorch, the characters. It blows me away that we’re still talking about it over a decade later and prepping for another movie. I’m very fortunate and will never take all of this for granted.
One of the most common descriptions I’ve heard readers and critics ascribe to your books is that they are “thrill rides.” How do you plot these thrills? Do you map out the entire series in full before you begin writing, or, is there a fair amount of creation after you dive in? As for the twists and turns, do you write linearly, going with your gut? Or are you always tweaking / getting feedback from readers to make sure they’re constantly being surprised? And last but not least, now do you know you’re finished with a series?
JD: It’s so hard for me to say how I write my books. It always begins with an image or a feeling or a simple premise. Next comes a very short outline, kind of a map, and then I dive into the first draft. Although I’m constantly planning ahead in my mind, a lot of the best stuff comes to me as I’m furiously typing away. I do like to pepper in surprises, twists, reveals, shocks, etc., but it’s always so hard for me to articulate exactly how I do it.
You’re very active on social media, engaging frequently with the “Dashner Army,” as your fans call themselves. How does this ongoing conversation affect your current writing projects? Do you view social media as a help or a hindrance – or something in-between – to the modern novelist?
JD: I love social media, something I could never have fathomed as a kid. If it had magically appeared, my brain would’ve exploded. It’s just so fun to have such immediate access to your readers, and to be able to tell them things instantaneously. I think it’s a major boon to modern authors. And for me, it’s never a hindrance. I don’t let it affect my writing and I don’t get bogged down in trying to respond to people, except maybe randomly here and there. I think they understand – they’d rather me write books than tweets.
You used to be a full-time accountant. In hindsight, what would you say was the single-most critical attribute – or moment of fate or outside influence – that led you to quitting your day job and becoming a full-time novelist?
JD: Well, it’s not like I was working my butt off as an accountant and one day had an epiphany that I should quit and become an author. I ALWAYS wanted to be an author and wrote my first full novel while in college. Accounting was more of a backup plan, a way to make a living until my dream came true. Because I had kids, I never considered quitting my day job until I was reasonably sure I could make enough money to feed them something other than hay. Selling The Maze Runner to Random House was that special moment.
Having met so many young readers around the world, what role do you think books and reading play in young people’s lives today?
JD: I’m happy to report that in my experience, young people are reading more than ever. People just love storytelling and that’s never going to change. The thing that’s blown me away is how social it’s become. I’ve had so many of my readers make friends through the “fandom,” often meeting in the real world after connecting through social media. And I get lots of correspondence telling me how my stories helped them escape the world and survive tough times. I can’t imagine anything being more rewarding.
What do you consider the biggest misconception about young adult readers? What has been the biggest surprise?
JD: The biggest misconception by people is that young adults are somehow less intelligent than adults. That’s just ridiculous. They’re far smarter than anyone gives them credit for, and they see more, understand more. I never write down to them, and they constantly surprise me with their words and actions.
What writer or artist – living or dead – has affected you the most and why?
JD: That one’s so easy: Stephen King. He’s my favorite author and I consider him the best American writer of all time. No one can create characters like him, or settings, or invoke emotion, or anything else. I constantly aspire to be as good as him – something I’ll never achieve, but at least I’ll get better.
What is your favorite word?
What unsolved mystery either in history, science, or popular culture are you dying to get to the bottom of and why?
JD: The Universe. I want so badly to know what’s out there. I wish I could live forever, just so that I can witness the discoveries about space, other galaxies, other planets, intelligent life, etc. I want to live to see interstellar travel. Probably not gonna happen.
Is there one book above all others that made you want to be a writer? If so, which one?
JD: There are many, of course, but the one that jumps into my mind is James and the Giant Peach. That book was so magical to me, especially because of my name. It made me want to tell stories as cool as that one.
If you could choose any sci-fi alternative world in which to suddenly wake up tomorrow morning (i.e. Oz, the Glade, Panem, the Matrix, etc.) where would you want to go and why?
JD: Oh man I gotta say Middle Earth. Without a doubt. And just like Peter Jackson created in the movies. I’d need a lot of elves to protect me, though.
If God were found to conclusively exist and you were to ask Him a single question, what would it be?
JD: Why do such bad things happen?
What are you always searching for and will you ever find it?
JD: I’m always searching for the key to raising kids, and I’ve just about given up. So all I can do is love them and hope I don’t screw them up too bad.
Free Association Corner. Please answer with the first word that comes to mind.
Hero’s Journey: Thomas
Writer’s Block: Sucks
Stephen King: God
The Glade: Loyalty
About James Dashner
James Dashner is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Maze Runner series: The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure, The Kill Order, and The Fever Code, and the New York Times bestselling Mortality Doctrine series: The Eye of Minds, The Rule of Thoughts, and The Game of Lives. To learn more about James and his books, visit jamesdashner.com, follow @jamesdashner on Twitter, and find dashnerjames on Instagram.