Jeff Chapman explores fantasy worlds through fiction and is the author of The Merliss Tales fantasy series, The Huckster Tales weird western series, and The Comic Cat Tales series. Trained in history and computer science, Jeff writes software by day and explores the fantastic when he should be sleeping. His fiction ranges from fairy tales to fantasy to ghost stories. He’s not ashamed to say he’s addicted to dark hot chocolate, and he loves cats. Jeff lives with his wife, children, and cats in a house with more books than bookshelf space.
Briefly describe what books you have published (there is quite a list on your Amazon author page).
I started out publishing short stories in online publications and anthologies. Many of these stories have been collected in Strange Paths to Wonder and Blood and Beauty and Other Weird Tales. These are all fantasy stories of one type or another.
For the past five years, I have been focusing on novels with a few novellas thrown into the mix. I find it hard to write short stories now as all my ideas seem to expand. The Black Blade—my first novel—is part of the Huckster Tales series. These are weird western tales mixing fantasy, horror, and comedy that follow the adventures of a pair of hucksters who are forever getting over their heads in supernatural trouble.
The Great Contagion and Cat Sidhe are novels in The Merliss Tales series. These dark fantasy stories follow the life of Merliss–the spirit of a young woman who has been cast into the body of a cat. The magic that cast her spirit into the cat has given her an unusually long life—thousands of years.
The Sniggard’s Revenge is a YA fantasy about a teenage boy’s confrontation with the guardian of a barrow. Some of my standalone novellas include Krampus Comes to Town—a dark story about bullying and treachery; A Cat Called Blackjack—a comic story about gambling and a card-playing cat; and Chasing the Great Corvid—a lighthearted fantasy about the theft of the crown jewel.
You’ve been publishing books on Amazon for a decade. When/why did you start writing and how did that morph into publishing?
I remember some story writing assignments from grade school but those were derivative. I was probably sixteen when I started creating my own stories. These were Edgar Allan Poe-inspired stories of the weird and macabre. Fortunately, none of those early attempts have survived, but my initial interest in the macabre lingers in the darker elements of my fantasy tales.
I suspect all the time I spent at the library during summer vacations drove my interest in creating my own stories. I took a couple creative writing classes while in college and received some encouragement. However, I wasn’t able to publish any of my stories. I wrote off and on while I pursued other interests. After surviving a serious health crisis, I became very aware of my mortality and decided that if I wanted to pursue my dream of writing and publishing, I had to get serious about it. From that point on, I wrote with an eye toward publishing.
Tell us about your current work(s) in process?
I’m at work on a novel in the Merliss Tales dark fantasy series. As I mentioned earlier, Merliss is the spirit of a young woman who has been trapped inside the body of a gray cat. She had been training to become a healer/shaman, so she retains some magical abilities, but she lives as a cat. Merliss aids her human companions in their battles with disease and supernatural threats. The Breath of the Sea is set several centuries in the future from the first two novels so there is a whole new set of human characters. The story revolves around an injured mermaid and a dying girl who befriends the mermaid. Merliss is drawn into events to protect the mermaid.
How is your writing career different today than it was when you started?
At first, I focused on short stories and went through the cycles of submission and rejection. It was all about finding a home for the stories. Now, I’m focused on writing novels, reviewing comments from my editor, and publishing the revised novel. Marketing now takes up some significant time, as well.
Where do you start when you write a story (character, plot, ending, etc.)?
I start with a situation and a vague idea of who the protagonists are and where the story is going. I find my best ideas come to me during the creative process of crafting the story. Outlining does not work for me because I come up with better ideas while I’m writing.
Each day when I write, I review what I’ve written the previous day. Some writers take things out when they revise. I tend to add, usually more physical details and improved dialogue. When I’m done with the first draft, I do a read-through to fix inconsistencies and weak sentences. I then send it to beta-readers or an editor. I avoid multiple rounds of revision. It doesn’t take long to revise a story to death.
What is your strangest writing quirk?
I write my first drafts on a tablet, hunting and pecking on the virtual keyboard with one finger. Originally, I wrote my initial drafts with pen and paper, but I made so many changes in the margins that I often couldn’t read what I had written. It also took forever to type the manuscripts.
Do you have a favorite book, series, or character that you’ve written?
One of my favorite characters from the Merliss Tales is Slynid. He’s a pooka who likes to take the form of a stoat. He’s one of those characters that came to mind as I was writing. I had figured he would be a minor character, but Slynid demanded more and more page-time until he became a major secondary character. The evolution of characters who seemingly come out of nowhere is one of those magical parts of the creative process.
Another of my favorites is Jimmy’s grandma from the Huckster Tales. Grandma never appears as a character—she’s long dead—but she lives on through her many, many aphorisms that Jimmy recalls whenever a situation calls for some homespun wisdom. One of my reviewers likened her to a Greek chorus.
How does your background in history and computer science influence your fiction?
My background in history has led me into fantasy. I enjoy creating fantasy worlds that incorporate elements from various eras of history. Computer science has taught me the importance of precision in language and meaning. My background in computing has also helped me with the technical aspects of publishing.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I enjoy reading and listening to audiobooks. I like to go on bike rides with my children. I spend time with my family and pets; grow vegetables; avoid yard work; and build useful stuff like bookcases.
What does success look like for you as an author?
I hope that many people will read and enjoy my stories.
Is there anything additional you want to share with readers?
Do you like fantasy? Do you like cats? Do you like dark stories salted with some humor? If you answered yes to any of those questions, I have stories you will enjoy.
Excerpt: From The Great Contagion
A twig snapped behind her. Merliss tensed, her muscles still and taut. She expected a predator, perhaps a leercat or a wolf. What she heard hinted at a very different type of presence.
Last season’s dead leaves, dried from heat and drought, crunched, but not from footfalls, more of a long, drawn-out compression.
She tasted a heavy and potent magic, like a thousand cherry blossoms compressed into one.
Her heart raced as she imagined another giant snake or some other gargantuan creature.
The birds had fallen silent. Only the gurgle of the river swirling over stones interrupted the hush smothering the woods. She drew a deep breath.
For a moment she doubted her senses. An avalanche of scents, impossible scents for these woods: pine, larch, cedar. And there were the old familiars: oak, walnut, yew, and alder. She smelled every type of tree she had ever encountered, every type of nut and berry at the peak of ripeness, and many others she could not place. Moldering leaves and dried needles mixed with flowers and the first leaves of seedlings, decay and hope brought together into a single, sentient force.
A wave of magical power swept over her. It pressed her ears flat and weighed on her neck. Her fur stood on end and crackled with static. The taste of all those scents was so intense it burned her tongue to numbness. She felt the energy ripple through her paws, rising from the roots of every tree. The leaves of the nightshade vibrated and sang with power.
There was no point in running. Whatever lurked behind her possessed the power of nature itself. She waited, thinking it would move on, but its presence remained strong. Had it come for her? Surely not. A magical being so powerful would have no use, good or ill, for a lowly cat, even one harboring a spirit.
Merliss rose slowly. Her heart thumped a rapid staccato despite willing it to slow. She stood level with the nightshade leaves. The pointed tip of one poked into her ear. She shook her head to dislodge it.
She tucked her tail between her hind legs. The sign of submission came to her without thought. So far, so good. No harsh magic had befallen her. Nothing had struck her down.
She turned around with the deliberation of a tortoise. Her breath caught in her throat.
The creature stood ten feet tall or more. A robe of birch bark panels laced together with ivy draped across its shoulders and hung to within a foot of the forest floor. Interlocking branches thick with leaves spread out in every direction beneath the robe. Its face bore the deep valleys of an ancient oak’s bark, its features lost in shadow, except for the eyes. The black rims of a pair of knotholes protruded from its forehead. A green flame burned within each circle. Brown and white stalks sprouted from the top of its head. Fleshy at the base, they tapered like roots to thin tips and arced toward the ground.
Wog, one of the old gods. She had heard tales describing the deity’s physical presentation as an upside-down tree. The tellers were nearer the mark than they could have imagined. Merliss swallowed. The Keeper of Forests, the guardian of all things wood, peered down at her.
“The one called Merliss.”
Wog’s voice rumbled. Neither male nor female, but both, it resonated with depth as if it had travelled the trunk of the thickest tree in the forest, accumulating age and wisdom with each ring.
“I…I am Merliss.”
“Your wishes will be granted.”
“Wishes?” Merliss hadn’t prayed to Wog. She had found the old gods indifferent and unresponsive at best, but her spirits lifted as she considered a potential boon. “You mean the thaugs root?”
“No.” Wog paused. “Persistence. It rewards many. Maybe yet, even you. No, I speak of your people’s wish to throw off the Anglii yoke.”
Merliss considered the failed uprisings of the recent past. “This generation? So many are sick and weak?”
“Consequences. The contagion. Your ally and your nemesis.”