When Donnally Miller hired me to copyedit his 400-page Fantasy novel, The Devil’s Workshop, he was partly looking for a reality check. The work had, like far too many terrific books these days, been passed over by scores of agents who would rather go with the standard safe, formulaic garbage. Nothing new there.
Now, freelance editors get a lot of commissions from new writers, and consequently one’s expectations are rather low. But just a few chapters into the edit of this novel, I realized what I was reading was no standard first novel but a polished, utterly compelling work of fiction. Curious, I sent Donn an email asking how long he’d been writing, and he replied, “thirty-five years”.
So what’s it about? Donnally describes his book as
A tragic love triangle set against the background of a ripping pirate yarn.
In a sea tale filled with witches, werewolves, pirates and Indians, there are many scenes of wit and whimsy, and many more of romance and dark intrigue. The main characters, Katie and Tom, have drunk a love potion and are fated for one another, but they have parted, just as a slave rebellion and an Indian war roil the waters and transform the landscape. They will search for one another through many hazards and perils.
And this is just the moment that Crazy Dog and his pirates have chosen to enter the mouth of Cutthroat Bay in search of the giant emerald that is the eye of Maddibimbo the monkey god.
The Devil’s Workshop is a delicious, sprawling, thought-provoking epic Fantasy so well-crafted I can only compare it the work of giants like Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, and Ken Liu. The worldbuilding, character work, and dialogue are on a par with anything that’s ever won the World Fantasy Award. The novel is also replete with profound, humorous, and tragic insights into the nature of love, good and evil, society, power, and human nature.
This was, in short, a book I passionately felt had to be published. I advised Donnally to go indie, and the book is now finally out in the world. I strongly advise that you read it.
Now let’s hear from Donn.
DC: Donnally, thanks so much for letting me interview you. I know that you’ve been writing for over three decades now. Tell me a little about your trajectory.
DM: I’ve actually been writing sporadically on and off ever since I was in high school. My first love was drama. My mother used to stage abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays in our backyard when I was growing up. In college, I spent most of my time at the college theater, working on student productions. When I got out of college I moved to New York with the intention of becoming an actor. I also started writing plays at that time. Acting never worked out, and I eventually had to get a real job, but I never stopped writing plays, I even got a couple of them produced Off Off Broadway, but could never get anything accepted anywhere else. After many years I thought I’d try fiction, so I turned one of my plays into a novella and tried sending that off, but then again got nowhere. At that time my wife was working in admissions at a local prep school. A young man who was helping with their IT saw my wife reading a mystery in her office one day and asked if she’d be interested in reading a story he wrote. So she read it and brought it home for me to read. Anyway, she told this young man I was also a writer and he asked if I’d like to join a critique group he was in. I said sure, why not? And I started meeting with this critique group which would get together every month at the meetings of the New Jersey Horror Writer’s Association. So I started trying to write the sort of stories they were writing, and when I wrote some that I thought were pretty good I tried sending them out. Of course, none of them were ever accepted. At some point I realized that nothing I wrote was ever going to get accepted anywhere so I thought what the heck, why not try a novel? I was in my sixties then and I’d never written a novel before, but I was well read; I knew the effect literature could have on a reader and I also knew that nobody making a living writing commercial fiction was having that effect on me, so I thought I’d write the sort of book I liked. And I did, and it was The Devil’s Workshop.
DC: Donnally, this is a complex, sprawling, epic work. How long did it take you to write?
DM: It took me two years to write, and then six months to revise.
DC: The Devil’s Workshop seems very strongly character-driven. Tell me a little about your process. Did you plot in detail, or just give the characters free rein?
DM: As a reader I can tell the difference between a character who’s been closely observed and inhabited, and one that’s being jerked around to fit the requirements of the plot. So yes, absolutely, for me it all starts with the characters. I had no idea of the plot when I began the book. I don’t care much about plot and I certainly never read a book for the plot. In fact, till I started researching what agents were looking for, it never occurred to me that anybody would read a novel for the plot. I’ve seen infants of one or two years, when they get Christmas presents they often get more enjoyment from the box than they do from the gift. That’s basically how I feel about people that read a book for the plot. Of course you’re going to ask how can I then avoid plot holes? But you’ll find that if the characters are acting entirely naturally it is absolutely impossible for plot holes to happen because everything will be motivated by what the characters want. It’s only artificial plots that have plot holes.
DC: Your dialogue is exceptional, and it absolutely crackles throughout this entire work. How did you get so good at it?
DM: As I said, my first attempts at writing were plays, and I wrote nothing but plays for many years, so I worked hard on dialogue. Dialogue is the best tool there is for revealing character. I also had the experience of seeing a couple of my plays produced, and of hearing good actors give readings of my works, even if I had to pay the actors to do it. There’s nothing that teaches you to write dialog like hearing it acted out.
DC: I know that your father actually compiled dictionaries1. Tell me a little about that, and whether you feel that influenced your interest in fiction and writing.
DM: My father, George A. Miller, was one of the founders of the so-called cognitive revolution, and was the first person to create an online dictionary. So I grew up around ideas about cognition and linguistics, and was familiar with Chomskyan linguistics from an early age (along with Shakespeare from my mother’s side). A lot of the ideas that went into The Devil’s Workshop stem from that, particularly the idea that God is language. When my father passed away, I had the pleasure of finding some of his early writings that he’d preserved from his college days, and one of them was an uncompleted novel that I’d never known anything about, but that must have meant a lot to him since he held onto it all his life.
DC: What first got you interested in Fantasy?
DM: I think that’s the wrong question. The real question is why wouldn’t anyone be interested in fantasy? I know what I was interested in when I was a boy, and I’ve seen my own boys grow up, and I believe that the first stories all people are interested in are fairy tales, fantasy, horror and science fiction. Many people eventually move on and their tastes change. Mine never really did. There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I started taking myself seriously and decided I should read something different, but even as I grew to love great literature I realized that much of what I loved about it was what Tolkien called an ‘arresting strangeness.’ So my love of fantasy goes hand in hand with my love of all reading. What I’m not interested in is commercial fiction, including virtually all the fantasy being written today, but that’s because it’s dreck, not because it’s fantasy.
DC: The world in your novel, The Devil’s Workshop, is rich and complex, with a strong Alternate History feel. Did you intentionally craft it as an AH story?
DM: I was drawn to the Caribbean around 1700 because it was such an exotic environment, with pirates, Indians and slaves and I felt it had been underutilized in fantasy, unlike the typical medieval setting. However, I didn’t want to do research to make it true to the real Caribbean. I felt the Caribbean of my imagination was sufficient. So I made up the world of the Coast. This world clearly has had a classical period like the one in our world (there are references to the Bible and Socrates and so forth), so the idea was that in a world very similar to our own, when Columbus crossed the Atlantic, instead of discovering the New World that he actually discovered, he discovered this fantastical land instead.
DC: The book has a lot of strong philosophical elements and countless, very resonant insights into people. Your character work is remarkable. But I happily had no sense of a writer with an agenda which is, sadly, all too often the case with modern SFF novels. In fact, I’ve spoken to many authors who believe it’s their duty to imbue their fiction with social and political messages. What’s your feeling on this? Should fiction preach or entertain? Or can it do both?
DM: I’m glad you didn’t have that sense. I would like the reader to be unable to spot the author intruding at any point. Of course I’m intruding all over the place, but I don’t want to be caught in the act. As to what fiction should do, I have no clue. Writers should do whatever they’re interested in doing, but only if they’re able to do it. You only sense writers with an agenda when they’re clumsy about it. If they’re good at it, you just take it all in. Did Orwell have an agenda when he wrote 1984? You bet.
DC: Who are your favourite authors?
DM: In general, the writers who have taught me what writing is are Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, Fielding, Melville, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. In the SFF field, Lord Dunsany, R. A. Lafferty, Jack Vance and James Branch Cabell.
DC: I know you’re a great fan of eighteenth century literature. What is it about the period and prose style that so appeals to you?
DM: Three books I discovered in my teens and valued highly were Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Of course they’re very different books, but one characteristic of eighteenth century literature is what I would call a devastating lucidity. The authors of that period had a way of observing the world clearly and describing what they saw with elegance and precision. For instance, try reading David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. If anyone is better at making the most complex, abstract ideas appear simple and understandable, I’m not aware of it. I find the writers of the Enlightenment can bring the world into focus for me, while most writers of today seem more interested in obscuring what they say. Also, when you’ve been mocked by Swift or Voltaire you have been well and truly mocked.
DC: There’s also a very strong metaphysical element to this work, as the title implies, and supernatural forces have a lot of agency in this novel. Can you talk a bit about that?
DM: As a writer, I try to use words to make the reader feel and understand things that can’t be expressed in words. I wanted to make the reader feel that the first principles of things, including such concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause, identity, etc. are linked to forces or causes that transcend the powers or the ordinary course of nature. Any attempt to explain this linkage can only end in failure, but maybe it can be experienced in a story. I tried to tell a story that would leave readers feeling they live in a universe that is terrifying and inexplicable and at the same time give them a good laugh.
DC: Now The Devil’s Workshop is complete, do you have any future novels planned? Would you return to this world or do something completely different?
DM: No, I don’t. All the time I was writing this novel I felt inspired, and I’d love to feel that again. I have started something new. I’ve written a dynamite first chapter, but I’m having trouble coming up with chapter two. I’m sure it’ll come to me. It has nothing to do with the Coast. I have no plans to return to that world.
DC: Donnally, thanks so much for your time, and I wish you every possible success with this novel. Is there anything you’d like to add?
DM: There’s always something I’d like to add, but I never know what it is till later. I guess I’d just like to say I hope everybody enjoys the book.
The Devil’s Workshop is available here at Amazon in both print and Kindle format. Just do it. 🙂
To learn more about Donnally Miller, The Devil’s Workshop, and the genesis of this novel, visit https://www.donnallymiller.com/
1 Donnally Miller’s father’s remarkable online dictionary project can be found at https://wordnet.princeton.edu/ To input a word and utilize the database, just type it into the search box at http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn or click the link in the lefthand sidebar of the site.