Author John Meszaros loves mixing together his interests in natural history, world cultures and mythology to create worlds that feel like they live and thrive on their own, apart from the narrow story of the protagonists. I’m pleased to introduce him here on No Wasted Ink.
I’m John Meszaros. I’ve worked in science education all my life, at zoos, aquariums, natural history museums, and currently a planetarium. I love natural sciences, particularly paleontology, astronomy, and marine biology. I collect books, plants, and fossils and am well on my way to transforming my house into a combination library/green house/wizard’s laboratory. I’m a big fan of cryptids and folklore and I currently run a blog about “official” state cryptids. I’m also an illustrator, and I love to weave my art together with my writing.
When and why did you begin writing?
Like many authors, I’ve been writing since I was a kid. But I first really started taking my writing seriously in college when I began submitting sword and sorcery stories to magazines.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Definitely when I started submitting stories. I mean, packaging and mailing all those manuscripts (this was just before email submissions became widespread) and collecting rejection letters really got me into the mindset of being a serious writer. That’s also when I started really analyzing the works I read from other authors to figure out how to improve my own craft.
Can you share a little about your current book with us?
My first novel is a dark fantasy set in a world based on medieval Japan. It’s about a young woman who becomes a fire-controlling demigod against her will, and her efforts to learnt to control her powers. I’ve always loved Japanese mythology and monsters, and incorporated an abundance of ghosts, yokai, magic and other supernatural happenings into my book.
What inspired you to write this book?
For the first part of my writing career I wrote short stories. I really wanted to try my hand at writing a full novel with lots of world-building. I grew up watching a lot of anime, and that sparked an interest in Japanese culture and history. I couldn’t find much fantasy fiction with a Japanese setting (though that’s thankfully changed in recent years), so I decided to write my own.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I actually didn’t discover my writing style until after I wrote this book. I have a very episodic style that comes from my experience writing short stories. My books usually have a single overarching plot driving the character’s long-term goals, but they run through many semi self-contained adventures in the process of getting there. I struggled with this style for a long time, trying to smooth it out and write in the more conventional way that you’re “supposed” to write a novel. But I realized eventually that this was the method that was true to me, regardless of what other authors and editors thought I should do.
How did you come up with the title of this book?
I didn’t have a name for my book until the last draft. By the end I found that the underworld of Yomi played a huge role in the book. All of the conflict in the story sprang from the machinations of beings hailing from this realm, so “At Yomi’s Gate” was a very fitting reflection of that.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
At Yomi’s Gate isn’t really a hard moral story, but a major theme of the plot is about the main character, Sakura, dealing with her own fear and anger and learning to turn that rage away from hurting other people and focus it on protecting those she cares about.
Are experiences in this book based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
There are kernels of my personality and life experiences in each of the five main characters. They each have different aspects of my own emotions, creativity and curiosity, around which I’ve hung other personality traits to make them their own individuals. In particular, one of the main characters, Fumito, is a scroll painter and artist, and I share his love for collecting and telling stories.
On a more concrete level, several scenes in the underworld that are visually inspired by the time I visited the Dazu Buddhist rock carving grotto in China.
What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?
Ursula LeGuin has been my biggest influence. I love her stories about finding balance. Her use of Taoist philosophy has greatly influenced my own work.
I’ve also been heavily influenced by China Mieville’s weird fiction. My own settings, characters and creatures can get bizarre, and seeing how he handles odd settings helped me figure out how to ground my own stuff.
The early 20th century author Harold Lamb has also been a big influence. He wrote tons of pulp adventure fiction based in meticulously-researched historical settings, particularly Central Asia. I’ve tried to put the same level of care and research into my own world-building that he put into his.
If you had to choose, is there a writer would you consider a mentor? Why?
Again, definitely Ursula LeGuin. Her works taught me a lot about incorporating theme and meaning into a story without turning it into a bland morality fable. Her books taught me about accepting both the bad and good sides of oneself, and that one must learn how to incorporate them together into a whole. That idea directly runs through At Yomi’s Gate, especially in Sakura’s character arc.
Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?
The cover was illustrated by Matthew Meyer. His style is based on old Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, particularly of monsters called yokai. I love that look and really wanted my cover to look like a print you might find at a vendor’s stall in old Tokyo. Meyer was really the only person I wanted to illustrate my cover, and I’m still glad I went with him.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
The most important thing about writing is to find the style that works best for you. There are tons of classes and how-to books that tell you that their way is the “correct” way to write. And sure, if one of those methods resonates with you, then use it. But don’t get stuck thinking that you have to find the one perfect system for writing, because none of them work for everyone. Furthermore, it might take you a while to figure out what method is right for you. I wrote for ten years before I finally found the most productive system for me.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
My current works-in-progress are combining my passions for art and writing, so hopefully fans of my illustrations will enjoy seeing them mingle with my written words, and vice versa.
At Yomi’s Gate
Cover Artist: Matthew Meyer