Writing Journeys – Josiah Bancroft

I think it’s fair to say that Josiah Bancroft was the most unexpected success story of 2016. Missing the finals of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off by a hair’s breadth, his book Senlin Ascends caught the attention of Mark Lawrence. Mark loved the book, to say the least, and decided the world needed to know. After some months of concentrated effort to give the book a push, Senlin Ascends began to skyrocket in sales and reviews. I’m only reading it now but it’s easy to see why. If I were attempting to market this book, I’d call it Fantasies answer to Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. It has a similar character who is a comfortable, man of habit, reserved Englishman type, thrust into this mad world with a guide book to hand. The reason I call it fantasies answer is because it deals far more with how people work, not how ‘things’ work as is more the case in Adams’ writing. It’s poetic and the level of imagination at hand is startling, and I absolutely demand there be a Netflix series. I decided to end this blog series with Josiah so as to open and close on similar notes. Both he and Phil Tucker are wild success stories from the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off and both men have a long history of writing behind them. They are the prime examples of the inherent wisdom in the oft heard advice ‘keep writing’.

 

 

For about a decade, I was convinced that I was going to be a poet.

I studied under poets. I read whole shelves of contemporary and classical verse. I wrote hundreds of poems in a variety of styles and forms and published dozens. I undertook a blog series on the Poet Laureates of America. I participated in workshops. I submitted to contests. I attended conferences and public readings. I thumped pub tables with my fist, arguing over confessional poetry, language poetry, orientalism in poetry, MFA programs, unethical contests, and whether a caesura has any place in a spondee.

But the trouble with poetry is that few people read it anymore. It is essentially a genre without an audience.

I know an argument can be made that poetry has fared better in other countries, maintaining the cultural cachet it has largely shed in the United States. An argument can also be made that the genre has not vanished, but merely evolved into something more performance based.

Yet, I discovered there was no quicker nor surer way to decapitate a conversation than to say, “I write poetry.” Most people would rather read a word jumble than a poem. Given the choice between reading a poem in the New Yorker or a shampoo bottle, most of us would say, “Well, let’s see what this Glycol stuff is all about!”

Not that I blame people for hating poetry. Too much contemporary poetry is smug, riddling, pity-baiting pablum, or poorly conceived political theses crammed lazily into a metaphor about garden slugs or my grandmother’s hand-sewn doilies or whatever the fuck the leaves are doing this time of year in Maine. I had hoped to help make poetry relevant again, because I did (and still do) love it. Instead, I found myself growing cynical about the whole endeavor.

If there’s one thing I never want to be it is a cynic. Cynicism is easy, comforting, unassailable, and joyless. Cynicism is just an entitled sort of apathy, and if one is going to walk stiff-armed and zombie-eyed through life, smirking at wonder and shrugging at evil, why even bother?

I began writing the Books of Babel series to stave off this metastasizing cynicism. I wanted to recover the eager sort of feeling I had as a boy when I read fantasy and adventure books. I wanted to recapture that sense of discovery, novelty, mystery, and bewilderment that defined my youth, and to make the goal pleasure rather than accolade or (god help us all) meaning.

The Tower sprang out of that urge for exploration and revelation and awe, though as soon as I conceived of that great monolithic structure, I realized I had no idea how to cut it open, how to show its parts, cultures, and purpose in a way that would be entertaining rather than pedantic. I needed a human vantage, an outsider, someone with a penchant for over-analysis and theorizing. In short, I needed Tom Senlin.

His character was initially inspired by the Conrad Aiken poem, “Morning Song from ‘Senlin.’” The poem is about a quiet man of habit who seems to long for some greater, perhaps supernal perspective, even as he does little more than look upon his own reflection. Near the end of the poem, there are a few lines that suggest to me the start of some adventure:

 

“. . . It is morning, Senlin says, I ascend from darkness

And depart on the winds of space for I know not where,

My watch is wound, a key is in my pocket,

And the sky is darkened as I descend the stair.”

 

Senlin, as a character in my books, is more of a Bilbo than an Aragorn. He’s prudish, naïve, and egotistical, and though I think he has a good heart, he makes a lot of mistakes, some of which he learns from, some of which he makes again and again. But at the same time, he is loyal to his friends and dogged in his pursuit, and I think he grows and changes in surprising ways. At least, I hope that is the case.

I’m drawn to flawed characters because I’ve only ever met flawed people. I also find it more relatable and compelling if a person overcomes their failings to accomplish something, be it grand or modest. I realize the genre is called “fantasy” for a reason, but even so, I can’t relate to prophesied heroes with convenient skill sets and false flaws, like a lack of self-belief, or the inability to love again because some goblins ate his wife in the prologue.

Presently, I’m working on the third book in the series, tentatively titled The Hod King, though I continue to waver on that point. I’m having a devil of a time drafting the thing, not because I don’t know what happens or because I’ve lost interest in the project, but because, for the first time in my life, I am writing for an audience. For years, my personal motto was: Do what you want because no one is paying attention anyway. It’s easy to be creative and daring when the only person you risk disappointing is yourself. I’m finding it a little difficult to be as free now that others are invested in my efforts.

So, my odyssey with the written word continues. I’m not sure what it all means, or if it will add up to anything in the end, but at least it has been interesting and curative of my cynicism.

 

 

Josiah Bancroft is the author of the Books of Babel series. His poetry has appeared in dozens of magazines and journals, such as: the Cimarron Review, the Cincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, the Pinch, Natural Bridge, Rattle, Passages North, Slice Magazine, The American Literary Review, Third Coast, and Bomb Magazine: Word Choice. He resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

More examples of his work, including updates on upcoming installments in the Books of Babel series, can be found at www.thebooksofbabel.com

 

 

 

And that’s a wrap! This has been the final post on the Writing Journey series. I do hope you enjoyed reading about the personal journeys our authors have gone on. A HUGE thank you to all the authors who contributed. If there is anything to take away from it all, it is that there is no single route, but you must, must, must, keep writing and keep dreaming.

 

 

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