James Maxey’s living-room bookcase is so packed with books that some titles stacked on top nearly touch the ceiling.
However, his collection is different from the average book collection: One shelf in the bookcase is devoted just to books that he has written.
Maxey, 50, is the 2015 Piedmont Laureate, chosen from writers in Durham, Orange and Wake counties to speak at events and promote the importance of literature.
The theme this year was speculative fiction, a genre that includes science fiction, horror and fantasy. Maxey’s “Dragon Age”series is about a dragon hunter living in a world ruled by dragons, and his novel “Nobody Gets the Girl” has a superhero spy Nobody.
Maxey was a self-described “big geek” in high school. His favorite superhero was Superman because the character has two identities: superhero and journalist. He “made me feel like, maybe, one day, my secret hero identity would emerge,” Maxey said.
His love of comic books led to an interest in science and science fiction. He disliked fantasy, however, because it is not based on the theoretically possible discoveries and technologies that science fiction is rooted in.
“I thought it was cheating to just make up your own rules,” he said.
After participating in Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp, he decided that science fiction and fantasy are similar and stopped viewing the fantasy genre negatively.
Maxey wrote throughout high school and into college, deciding at 25 that he wanted to pursue writing as a career. He tried to write a novel, but exhausted all of his ideas a third of the way through the work. Later attempts were more successful, and he has now written 10 novels and one short-story collection.
Maxey believes that “Greatshadow,” a novel he describes as “X-Men meets Tolkien,” is his most popular work. It is a fantasy epic about a woman named Infidel who hunts Greatshadow, a dragon. The story is narrated by Stagger, her former companion, who hunted with her and loved her. He gets killed early in the novel, and his spirit is trapped in a knife that Infidel carries with her. It is the first book in the “Dragon Apocalypse” series.
Hard to grasp
In December, Maxey learned that he was the new Piedmont Laureate. He “reacted rather calmly” to this news, but had difficulty believing it.
“It was hard for me to grasp that they were going to give this position to a guy who writes about dragons and superheroes,” he said. Two weeks later, the news was officially announced, and he began serving as laureate. Along with the title, he received an honorarium.
Many of the duties were familiar to him, as he had run writing workshops and book clubs at the Orange County Public Library. He has also spoken at science fiction conventions and on WUNC’s “The State of Things.”
As Piedmont Laureate, he hopes to promote science fiction and fantasy as serious literature. Although he acknowledges that the genres are more mainstream than when he was young, he believes they are still not regarded seriously by those who see them as formulaic.
“I think that, because you have to work within these formulas and you have to follow some of the tropes of the genre in order for it to even be that genre, it looks like… anybody can do it,” he said.
Maxey compares genre writing to a sonnet, a type of poem with 14 lines.
“To me, the art comes from working within the constraints,” he said. “(Science fiction) is a serious art form, and I hope that people can come to appreciate that it is helping add to the sum total of truth in the world.”
Cheryl Maxey reads her husband’s works in progress and advises him. The couple lives in Hillsborough with their four cats.
“I get to read his second drafts, and I'll ask about characters that I like,” she said, “trying to make sure the ones I connect with don’t get killed off by the end of the book.”
James Maxey’s friend and editor, Edmund Schubert, has included some of Maxey’s stories in InterGalactic Medicine Show, an online magazine founded by Orson Scott Card.
“(Maxey) has an insatiable fascination for flawed characters,” Schubert said. “He empathizes with them, recognizing that we are all flawed in our own way, but at the same time he's not afraid to follow those characters’ stories into some pretty dark territory. I would also add that he is a meticulous writer who pays a great deal of attention to every word he chooses and the way he put every sentence together.”
Maxey is working on an untitled fourth book in the “Dragon Apocalypse” series. He tries to write 10,000 words a week and usually writes on weeknights and Sundays. He is also planning to write sequels to “Cut-Up Girl,” a superhero novel that he plans to release once he completes the rest of the books in the series.