Gregory L. Mahan was born in Richardson, Texas, but spent the majority of his life in and around the greater Houston area. Gregory fell in love with the works of Andre Norton at a very young age, and soon became a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy works. He began crafting stories for his friends and family at the age of 8 when he asked for (and received!) a typewriter as a Christmas gift.
In addition to writing, he enjoys Celtic music, and has played the Irish penny whistle and low whistle since 1995. His first band, Echoes of Ireland, was featured on KPFT radio’s Irish Aires program, as well as being one of the bands chosen to play for Charles Sheehan, Consul General of Northern Ireland on his visit to Houston in 2003. Gregory maintains one of the oldest and largest Irish music repositories on the internet, The Wandering Whistler Music Archives, and published his first songbook, Fifty Great Celtic Jigs, in 2002. In 2003, he joined the band Paddy Gone Wild, and was prominently featured on their CD, The Greatest Hits, released in 2008.
Gregory currently lives in Northern Virginia with his family.
In your first book, your protagonist Randall Miller is fourteen years old. What challenges did you encounter in writing from the perspective of a young boy, and how much of your personality is echoed in his?
I didn’t find it too challenging to write about a 14 year old boy. I was one myself once, have two brothers, and have raised three boys through their teenage years. I’d have had a much more difficult time writing from the perspective of a young girl, due to my lack of insight and experience with girls that age. I didn’t put a lot of my own personality into Randall’s character–instead, I used my youngest stepson as inspiration. Whenever Randall was faced with a tough choice, or had a frustrating setback, I tried to imagine how my stepson would handle it if he were in the same position. A lot of reviewers have commented on how realistic Randall is, rather than being a stereotypical precocious hero teenager, so I guess I did a good job!
When it comes to fantasy writing, an author is tasked with not only telling a story, but also creating a living, breathing world. What was your process for creating the world featured in A Touch of Magic and Magic Astray, and what did you use as inspiration?
I’ve always enjoyed reading high fantasy. Worlds with elves, dwarves, magic, and fantastical creatures. You’ll find many of the same elements in my books. But I also wanted to write about a world where magic wasn’t commonplace. I could have taken a number of different roads to achieve that goal, but once I hit on the idea that magic was illegal on Tallia, it really drove the rest of the story. After I had the basic idea down, I used real-world examples to give my world some depth. For instance, the piece of money called the Quarto can be broken into ‘slices’, an idea based on the old Spanish pieces of eight. I spent a few weeks figuring out little details like that about Randall’s world before I really started writing in earnest.
In your opinion, what separates great fantasy writing from mediocre (or bad) fantasy writing?
Great fantasy is immersive and character driven. When you can lose yourself in a story, that’s magic. If a story has too many cliches, purple prose, characters that are too flat, or the main character is so powerful that there’s no real conflict, it’s hard to invest in the story. I don’t want to read the story of an all-powerful assassin that always gets his man. I’d rather read the story of the ordinary Joe who the assassin is assigned to kill, and how that guy escapes his fate. Fantasy stories usually involve magic, extensive world building, and fantastical creatures, but all of the best fantasy stories are still character driven.
In recent years, the world of publishing has changed dramatically. As a writer who has embraced self-publishing and done reasonably well, where do you see things going in the future?
It’s hard to make predictions about the future, where technology is concerned. You just can’t predict quantum changes. The iPod revolution seems so obvious now, but nobody could’ve predicted it before it happened. What I’d like to see, though, is a strengthening of the self-publishing market. There just aren’t enough publishers, and too many good writers, for the Big Five to remain the sole gatekeepers of literature. Digitial self-publishing, as it stands today, lets authors get books into the hands of readers faster, and with more creative freedom, than any other time in history. I think the self-publishing boom is akin to the huge shift that occurred once the World Wide Web really started taking off, or when Youtube became a huge global player in the video market. It democratizes ideas, and frees people to share them in a way that they never could before. That has some drawbacks that come with the territory, but I think that it’s ultimately a great boon for mankind.
How do you market your books, and which avenues have you had the most success with?
In the early days of the first book, I relied on KDP Select — that’s an Amazon service where you can run a free book sale, in the hopes that you get enough reader interest to drive cash sales after the promotion expires. Back then, KDP Select was huge for me. I moved tens of thousands of books, and sold thousands more. Since then, Amazon has changed their algorithms a few times, Select doesn’t do much for me any more. (Or most any other self-published author I’ve talked to.) I’ve removed most of my books out of the program.
These days, targeted reader advertisement seems to be the best way to get your book in front of people who are truly interested in buying it. Bookbub is one example. They maintain an opt-in mailing list, categorized by genre. Their members want emails about books, and I’ve had great success using their service to put my own books directly in front of the very people who are most likely to be interested in them.
What advice would you give to someone looking to self-publish their first book?
I can sum up the 3 most important things in a nutshell: Get beta readers you trust, don’t skimp on the editing process, and make sure your cover art is solid. All of the other details, such as how to actually create a print-ready PDF, or how to convert from MOBI files to EPUB are just technical details that you can learn if you poke around on the internet. Self-publishing is no different than traditional publishing — the story is the most important part, and the cover is a reader’s first introduction to your work.
What events in your life have shaped you the most?
Oh my, that’s a doozy. I’ve had both some incredible highs, and some pretty deep lows in my life. In the late 90’s, I earned three patents and made an incredible amount of money during the tech boom, only to lose it all in 2000 when the bubble burst. That’s a pretty big one. I think going through that experience helped me gain a lot of confidence in myself, and losing everything taught me to really dig deep and not give up, even when life seemed pretty bleak.
What is it that drew you towards the Irish whistle?
When I was a kid, I loved heavy metal music. I got the first Metallica albums when they first came out. My friends and I all listened to Black Sabbath, Ozzy, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Iron Maiden. So to say that I had no interest at all in Celtic music was an understatement.
In my early 20’s, my girlfriend at the time forced me to take her to see a Celtic band, because she was friends with one of the band members. I really didn’t want to go, and had no intention of even trying to enjoy the show. But they had a tinwhistle in their ensemble, and I was instantly hooked by the sound of the instrument. Enchanted, you might say. I bought a cheap one as soon as I could, and have spent the last 20 years immersing myself in the music and doing my best to master the instrument.
Anything planned for St. Patrick’s Day?
The Auld Shebeen in Fairfax has Irish sessions on Saturdays around lunchtime. That’s where a bunch of musicians come together, all haphazard like, and bang out tunes. I’ll probably end up there, drinking a pint and playing the tinwhistle.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on the third book of the Llandra Saga: Magic Unleashed. The story picks up a few months after the last one leaves off, and without giving away too many spoilers, a good tagline for it is: “Faced with the end of the world, Randall has to decide between saving the world, or saving the woman he loves.”