Jesse Teller is the prolific author of many connected (but separate) works in the fantasy world of Perilisc, including the Manhunters trilogy and the standalone novels Liefdom, Chaste, and Mestlven. He has also written several short stories in this world across a span of time that goes back thousands of years. His latest work is Fate of Madness, the epic fourth and concluding book of The Madness Wars.
Jesse sat down with me and allowed me to pick his brain for a few minutes, to really dig deep and find out what it is that makes him tick as an author. I was very intrigued to get to the heart of the matter, as all the while I was reading through The Madness Wars, I found myself constantly being amazed at the depth and detail of this dark yet fascinating world. Read on for a fascinating perspective into the development of worlds through the author’s vision.
Q: I love how your books all tie together, though they’re each set as stand-alone. It’s cool to find the little Easter eggs that refer back to another work, though the story doesn’t depend on knowledge of previous books. Are all of these links clear in your head or do you need to map it all out to keep yourself straight?
I was fine until book twenty-nine. When I was writing the first twenty-eight books, it was pretty clear in my head. I needed a plot and a main character for the series, a basic but pretty undefined direction for the series to go, but I realized I was writing all my books in the same world and that it was pretty unrealistic that characters from one series would not in some way touch the others. So, I would take what I had, main character, idea for the series, and vague direction, and I’d ask myself, who will wander into this series from another series? The biggest example of this was the book Hemlock. It came out in 2018. Hemlock is the second book in The Manhunters series, and the main cast didn’t change, but Aaron the Marked was in that book. The book takes place after The Madness Wars, so at the time, Aaron in Hemlock is eighteen years old. Presented certain challenges. I had to predict changes he would go through during The Madness Wars and the years after. I had to predict what kind of man he would be and write that man in The Manhunters series. But in the end, it’s all a continuation of the series before it. And at the same time, it’s all backstory for books that have come ahead of it.
When you read Onslaught, you see Sai Sibbius Summerstone escaping captivity. His story goes forward, but why should I spend pages and pages explaining how he got into captivity and everything around that when it gets in the way of the book the reader is currently reading? If you want to know how he got into that captivity, you read Chaste and Mestlven. Those novels become backstory, but only for one character. The rest of the characters, and Sai, are at that point presently going through a story. A lot of novels get bogged down in backstory and info dumps, and I’m fiercely against that.
The Callden Collective is a force to be reckoned with in Crown, the third book of The Manhunters series, which also came out in 2018. But if you want to know their backstory, you read The Madness Wars. Writing, including all the Easter eggs and the jumps in time, becomes a game of “How did this character get to this place at this time? And what changes did they go through in books I haven’t written yet?”
The first twenty-eight books, I was able to keep it pretty well nailed down. Once I started twenty-nine, the work I was writing became so complicated that it was impossible to keep all of it straight in my head. I started keeping a meager amount of notes to help keep things straight, and I made a large master timeline painted on my wall. I’m writing book thirty-four now. It is extremely complicated and takes a lot of focus. But when it is done and published, no one will ever have seen anything like it before. The quote that I’m gonna misquote to you is, “If you want something you’ve never had, you have to be willing to do something you’ve never done.” The work I’m doing now is something no one’s ever seen before. There’s no model for me to follow. No research I can do on how it’s been done in the past. So I have to be willing to do things no one’s ever done before. I have to find new ways to create notes, new ways to organize my thoughts, train my mind to do things no mind has ever done before. It’s not easy. It is taking a toll on my personal life. But my wife works with a certain philosophy, if you can conceive a new inspiration, it’s your responsibility to bring it into the world.
Q: Tell us about Rextur, the Madness himself. What went through your head when developing this complex character? He seems conflicted, torn between his heritage and his religion.
Rextur’s complex and he’s extremely simple at the same time. He believes in discipline as enforced with the tool of destruction. He will break you and everything you hold dear if it means that he can bring order to your life. You have to understand this is a character who never had anything to hold onto. His mother was killed the moment he was born. His father’s an absolute monster. He was thrust into a world of death and pain, and the only thing he ever had to guide him was his religion. And all of that works in theory. But eventually if we allow ourselves to be led simply by the teachings of religion from mankind, we find ourselves losing track of the true vision of the god. Rextur is a monster made human by his discipline and his love of the men he leads.
There was a time in my life when I felt much the same way, when I was prepared to do anything it took to protect certain people in my life. I argued every point. I suffered all the pain. I believed in something and I was at war. So it wasn’t really hard to find Rextur in myself. It was actually harder making him a villain than it was making him a man. The fight that I fought was between my heritage and family and my moral code. That’s Rextur’s battle right there.
Josh Brolin for sure would be a really good Rextur. I like him for the role. But he’s good at everything. If you’re gonna do Dotley, who is a character I despise beyond all others, you can’t cast him any better than John Lithgow. Strick has to be played by somebody like Chris Pratt. Rextur could be found in the actor Hugh Jackman. I’ve been writing so much that I really have trouble fitting anything else into my life. Movies, television shows, and video games have had to fall to the wayside. My characters, I get so intimate with them when I’m writing them that I find myself bonding with them to the point where it almost seems disrespectful to place them, their beliefs, and their lines on other people. However, if I am casting Clark the First King, I would have to go with Idris Elba. And if I’m casting Despelora, Lena Headey.
Q: Aaron the Marked is another intriguing character to me, and one of the biggest strengths of the series are the relationships between him and the other “boys” in the Nation of Four. What is your inspiration for this group, and Aaron in particular?
Aaron is largely autobiographical. He grew up in violent circumstances, was terribly abused, and lost faith in himself and his honor. Everything with Aaron the Marked became extremes, and he found comfort in that. I wrote a book in 2011 called Nyst that will come out in April 2025. In that book, Aaron meets Peter Redfist for the first time. Aaron has committed an act deemed despicable by his people and they’re horrified by him and don’t know what to do with him. Right there is where we find the beginning of Aaron’s story and right there is where we find mine. People in my life knew me to be a villain because I went against them. So I did with Aaron and the Nation of Four what I find myself doing in all of my books, I wrote what I needed.
I grew up with no powerful, honorable father figure. And when I had sons of my own, I realized I had no role model to base my parenting off of. So I wrote those role models in the characters Burle Steeltooth and Flak Redfist, in Legends of the Exiles. I needed to know how to be a good husband, so I wrote one. With a past like mine, I was taught none of the skills that are needed to live a productive and healthy life. So I was forced to write my role models. The Nation of Four is that for Aaron and was that for me. With every new revelation and every step closer towards honor that Aaron took, I came to understandings about what I needed to do. I was talking to ML Spencer, and I said it again in a conversation with Sarah Chorn. I’ve said it a number of times. And I’ll say it here again. One day Aaron the Marked will save my soul.
Q: Do you consider your stories and characters to be Grimdark? What does that word mean to you as a crafter of worlds and words?
Grimdark is not something that I can reach, as understood by my definition. My stories are dark, there’s no doubting that. But I have a basic theme that I have embraced for all of my work. I’m having a conversation with myself with every book I write, trying to communicate one specific idea as a person who’s lived the life that I’ve lived and suffered the things I’ve suffered. I have to talk to myself about hope and despair. So all of my work is a discussion that I’m having with myself about what will win out in my life, hope or despair.
You can find it in every book I write, every short story. I’m obsessed with the idea. And in the end, it will be what they say about my work once it’s all been read, and they have looked at everything and they’ve looked at what I’m trying to say to the world. When I’m done, my readers will see the end result of the struggle between hope and despair. From what I know about the subgenre grimdark, and I may be wrong, nobody really has nailed down what the genre is and is trying to be. But from what I do know, there’s not a lot of hope in grimdark. There’s a kind of, I guess the term they use is moral ambiguity, in the main characters. And while some of my characters do have that, it’s not by any means exclusive.
I was chastised by a beta reader for having my work be so dark and at the same time so high fantasy. And from what I have heard, those who speak about grimdark with authority often say grimdark is low fantasy, which my work is not. By my estimation, I have written one grimdark book and it is called Chaste. The rest of my work is too high fantasy. There’s too many honorable people in it, and too much hope, for me to be considered a die-hard, pure grimdark writer. But I sure do appreciate Grimdark Magazine taking the time to look at my work and making it a priority.
Q: Something that’s very much grimdark to me is that we see a main protagonist that’s a villain by most standards. Rextur maintains a POV presence through all four books, though the chapters revolve with other characters. Rextur certainly isn’t the villain from his own perspective, so it’s interesting to see the wars through his eyes when his chapters come around. When writing his chapters, do you somehow see him as the hero of his own story?
Okay, well you will find when you talk to most people alive today that they do not consider themselves the villain of their own story. Most people consider themselves the hero of their own story. The trick to writing characters like Rextur is to look at him through his own eyes and ask him if he has a good reason for doing what he’s doing and what that reason is. Why are these actions worth committing? What is your motivation and why do you feel your life should go in this direction? There’s a lot of evil people from my past who are real live people that are evil. And all of them think they’re doing the right thing. This is the heart of Rextur. Rextur’s not doing what he’s doing for the sake of doing it or because he wants to push forward evil.
For example, there’s a memory he has of a party he was taken to by his father where there’s drinking and feasting and open sex, and when his father is passing out that night he says something along the lines of, “Well, boy, what did you think?” And as his father falls asleep, Rextur says, “All of those people need to be taught a lesson.” Rextur is an anti-hero. I was told by my English literature teacher that anti-heroes are almost impossible to write well. But as I’ve moved forward in my career, I found that I’m not having as much trouble writing an anti-hero as I was warned I might. Because what I’ve learned is that even people who do evil things tell themselves there’s a good reason for their actions.
Q: Now that you’ve released the final volume of The Madness Wars, what’s next on the horizon? I know you’ve been releasing new books at a steady pace, so what can we expect next?
Anyone who’s been following my career will not find it surprising that my next release will fall on October 5, 2021. It’s with my editor right now and it will be ready. I’ve got the cover art done for it, and I’m very excited. I have been on a mission since I first released Liefdom in 2016 to prove myself as a novelist. I released a standalone book. I released a collection of short stories to prove that I could write short stories and to layout the creation of my world. After a few more standalone books, I had proven that I could write a novel.
My next job as I saw it was to prove to my readers that I could start and complete a trilogy in a timely fashion. So I gave them The Manhunters. Each is a little over 300 pages. They’re all intertwined with main characters going all the way through one big agenda. It’s a trilogy. I wanted to prove to them that I could finish a trilogy. Then came the novellas. There was a lot of talk, and remains a lot of talk, about male writers being unable to write strong female characters. I released Legends of the Exiles to prove that I could write strong female characters.
Once all of that was proven as fact, I needed to show that I could write and release an epic series that came to a satisfying conclusion in a reasonable amount of time. I’ve proven that. The next challenge I’ve decided to take on is proving to readers that I can write short, powerful, fast reads that are engaging and fulfilling. My next release is called Scorch. It takes place in a desert land. The series can be read on its own, just as all of my different series can, and if you choose to read this trilogy The Burdens of Beasts, you will get a complete story. But if you have read the rest of my work, you will see that this entire series is built on the ramifications of The Madness Wars. And that a man who has lost himself, and is in constant turmoil with PTSD from that war, is trying to make a difference in the world and trying to hide from what he’s done.
And that’s all you get.
I’m not gonna tell you who the story follows. I’m not going to tell you the trauma this character faced. I’m not gonna tell you anything about how it ties to The Madness Wars. Because my work is built in such a way that you do not have to read all of it, and I don’t want the people who decide to read Scorch to feel as though they need to read The Madness Wars to understand it. Scorch is its own story. It just happens to fit in the tapestry of the rest of my world.