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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author J.E. Tolbert shares the inspiration behind his new book, Arsalan The Magnificent, and his creative writing process.

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Written by JJ Barnes

www.jjbarnes.co.uk

I interviewed J.E. Tolbert about his life and career, what inspired the story of his new book, Arsalan The Magnificent, and his creative writing process.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

J.E. Tolbert on The Table Read Magazine
J.E. Tolbert

I am a graphic designer, author, and artist living in the Washington D.C. area in the U.S.

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When did you first WANT to write a book?

This is difficult to pinpoint. I wrote my first book without even the intention of writing a book. It started as a short story in 2016 and over the course of two years blossomed into a novel that was 97,000 words long. It was a surprising process of creative development, like finding a diamond buried under my skin. I didn’t know I was capable of producing such an exquisite thing, but suddenly there it was. Before this, I had never entertained the desire to write a novel because I didn’t think I had any good ideas for one.

When did you take a step to start writing?

I had been writing little poems and short stories for a long time before I began to write that first novel, so it’s hard to say which step was the first. My novel grew like a mushroom in a forest. One day it started to bud from the moss, and the desire to cultivate it became my daily obsession. I suppose I decided to turn my short story into a novel after about three months of developing it.

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How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

It took two years to write. I even had it professionally edited. But I haven’t released that book. I decided that it was so surreal and so intensely personal that I would wait until much later, after I gained some namesake as an author, to publish it.

How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?

It took me a year and half to write my latest book Arsalan the Magnificent. I began to write it during the COVID pandemic in 2020. After I finished it, I self-published it on Lulu, though I didn’t know anything about how to market or publicize books once I published them. A year after that, I decided to take it off Lulu and have it professionally edited, republished through IngramSpark, and publicized. Its launch date is February 2024, so the whole process of developing this novel and launching it, at the level of professionalism that I wanted, took four years.

Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Arsalan The Magnificent?

It was a challenge from my wife. After seeing me labor over writing the first novel, she suggested that my time and talents as a writer would be best spent producing a work of commercially popular genre fiction, at least at this point in my writing career. I accepted the challenge and decided to write a work of fantasy, but I didn’t want to write anything that resembled the types of fantasy novels that had been written before, with sword-wielding warriors and wise, wizardly mentors and monsters in a forest. I wanted to invert those tropes and write something original. Also, I wanted to infuse fantasy literature with the type of sophistication I saw in literary fiction.

What were your biggest challenges with writing Arsalan The Magnificent?

The biggest challenge was crafting a fantasy story that was completely unique, and in some cases poetic, while remaining appealing and readable. I avoided a lot of fantasy cliches but judiciously decided to use some others. I used an elevated style of prose while not sacrificing comprehensibility. These represented a delicate balance.

Another balance I had to maintain was one between its central emotions of sadness and optimism. As a counterweight to the almost searing despair at the core of Arsalan’s crises, I kept the story not only lighthearted and hopeful but also following a theme or trajectory of personal transformation.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?

My initial inspiration for Arsalan was a video I saw of an older bearded man playing a stringed instrument in front of his rural homestead on a mountain while surrounded by his cats. I thought to myself that there must be a compelling story behind his life there. I decided it would be interesting if he were a retired wizard hiding from some terrible event in his past. From here, I was able to weave most of the story.

I decided that it would be a good idea to have the Protagonist to be an old or middle-aged character, but one who might appeal to younger readers. I wanted Arsalan to be a loveable curmudgeon. I wanted him to have a gruff, crusty exterior that concealed a soft, humane, and compassionate heart. Much of these personality traits are based on my older male relatives, particularly my father and his brothers. Men of that generation typically disliked displaying emotions traditionally associated with weakness but preferred to demonstrate their love in other, more concrete ways, such as in building things or working to make money for their loved ones.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?

It may not be obvious, but the main Antagonist in the novel isn’t really a person but the awful situation Arsalan creates for himself and struggles against. In a sense, Arsalan is his own Antagonist. The character who most closely resembles a traditional Antagonist, though, is General von Ansbach.

The inspiration behind his personality is none other than Donald Trump, except that von Ansbach is young, superbly capable, organized, and intelligent, in addition to being chillingly persuasive. I thought it would be an interesting inversion of dated stereotypes to have an Antagonist be a tall, smart, handsome, upstanding, blond-haired, blue-eyed fellow who could lead others in perpetrating crimes while justifying them. I thought it would be rather funny to pit him against a Protagonist who is a jaded, disheveled, frumpy old grouch.

What is the inciting incident of Arsalan The Magnificent?

Arsalan The Magnificent by J.E. Tolbert on The Table Read Magazine
Arsalan The Magnificent by J.E. Tolbert

The inciting incident of my book is the collapse of the World’s Leaf, Arsalan’s latest and most sophisticated structure, on the day of its grand opening in front of all the dignitaries of the world. This happens at the very beginning of the novel, and everything goes downhill, as it were, from there.

What is the main conflict of Arsalan The Magnificent?

The main conflict of my book is Arsalan’s struggle to reassemble the pieces of his disintegrated former life. After his commissioned building collapses, his reputation evaporates, he loses his fortune, and his family abandons him. Arsalan throws himself into seclusion and exile in an attempt to make sense of these disasters and to recover his authentic self. The main conflict in the book is internal.

Despite all his wishes for anonymity, though, Arsalan is found by one of the few people in the world who still believes in his powers, and she gives him the opportunity to redeem himself in ways that at first seem humble but in the end turn out to be grander and more transformative than either of them anticipated.

Did you plot Arsalan The Magnificent in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?

As I write, I plan my book about five to ten chapters in advance. This provides me with the structure that I need for my story along with the flexibility for some spontaneity. This comes from experience. Whenever I do plan a whole story in advance, from beginning to end, I find that the ideas and inspiration that come to mind as I’m writing are often more interesting than the original plans, and I begin to divert from the blueprints and revise them. In the end, I typically find that I never use the original plans for the ending.

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Arsalan The Magnificent need?

Of course, I hire a professional editor to proofread my book each time I write one. The editor I hired for Arsalan the Magnificent helped me not only with the grammar and punctuation but also the emotional arcs within the story itself. If those are considered any good, I must credit her for her help.

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

Be absolutely true to yourself and your vision when writing a story. Write the type of story you want to read. Sometimes, not enough of the type of stories you want to read exist. In such a case, see it as your job to introduce more of your types of stories to the world.

Don’t constrain yourself with other people’s notions of how to structure a story, how to develop characters, or how to write prose. Be as original as possible. Read many other books that resemble the type of story you want to write, but instead of imitating them, transcend them by writing something that defies their tendencies. Subvert tropes, cliches, and stereotypes either by avoiding them entirely or by recombining them in irreverent ways. Read manuals and reference guides on how to write contemporary fiction just so that you can break every rule they mention.

When you are at a loss for ideas for your story, don’t stop writing your story. Write anything. Write non sequiturs. Write something stupid and implausible. There might be a good idea in there somewhere, and you can always erase the rest of the nonsense. Don’t worry too much about writing something imperfect. You can always edit it later. In fact, editing is the primary body of writing.

The #1 Writing Tool

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I have written two other novels that are surrealist or magical realist in nature, and I plan to release these in the future. If Arslan the Magnificent does well enough, I do plan a sequel.

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Yes, I am proud of my accomplishment, and it is worth the effort, even if I accrue just a handful of fans. I am grateful for any degree of appreciation that Arsalan the Magnificent attains from readers.

Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:

Kindle: https://amzn.to/481DUUd

Paperback: https://amzn.to/3Rv6yb6

https://www.jetolbert.com/

https://www.instagram.com/j.e.tolbert/

https://www.facebook.com/jetolbert/

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/arsalan-the-magnificent-jason-tolbert/1143819988?ean=9781088191934

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