Tell us a little about yourself. What places have you been stationed during your time in the Air Force?
During my 14 years in the Air Force — 10 of which have been spent in Special Operations — I’ve been all over the place. I started out as a linguist, so I spent a year and half learning Korean at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA. After that, I would find myself being stationed in Nebraska, Florida, North Carolina, and New Mexico, with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and several countries in Africa as well. To say that I’ve seen a lot of the world would be underselling it, but it’s definitely helped shape who I am — and given me a lot of time to read and write, which has been crucial in my development as a writer.
How and when did you catch the writing bug?
I still have terribly-written journal entries from when I was in second grade, written in those vertically-flipping spiral notebooks, that are proof that I was at least in touch with the part of me that enjoys writing things down. But as far as actual creative writing, I had never even attempted so much as a short story until I started writing what would become Gift of the Shaper. Sure, I’d done papers for English class and the like — but I had never sat down and tried to write a story. I grew up reading and loving science fiction and fantasy, though — The Chronicles of Narnia are among the first stories I ever remember hearing — and I was going through Robert Jordan’s incredible Wheel of Time series on a deployment to Africa around 2013. I had gotten bored of surfing the internet all day during my time off, so I thought I might try my hand at creating something. I sat down, pulled out my iPad, and, in the words of Stephen King, “if you’re brave enough to start, you will.” So I did.
How does your experience in the Air Force directly influence your writing?
I have a section in the book where I’m talking about soldiers going off to war, and that is some of the hardest stuff I’ve written because I’ve lived it. I’ve done 11 combat deployments during my time in the Air Force, and there were some trips where I was afraid that I might not come home. I drew heavily from that emotion and personal experience since I want my writing to be believable and moving. Modern-day personal experience doesn’t always translate directly into a fantasy setting, but concepts like fear of dying or mourning the loss of a loved one are universal.
But besides the inspiration for writing, my deployments were also the opportunity for my writing. In most of the places we deploy to, you can’t exactly go downtown on your nights off, so you have to be creative with the time that you have. Almost everyone goes to the gym; others will watch movies on their laptops; some bring musical instruments like acoustic guitars and will tool around on them to pass the time. I brought my laptop and a blank Word document and would spend 3 or 4 hours a day writing when I could mentally afford to. Some days are more draining than others, so I wouldn’t necessarily write every day, but it’s not a coincidence that I both started and finished writing Gift of the Shaper while I was on a deployment.
What experiences in your life contribute to your creation of fantasy characters?
I’ve been a nerd my whole life, and part of that has come in the form of playing RPGs — whether it be the hundreds of hours I spent playing Dungeons & Dragons, the hundreds of days I logged playing EverQuest (a MMORPG that was popular in the early 2000s), or just reading about characters like Drizzt Do’Urden in R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf Trilogy. All of those were formative experiences for me because I got to see that there were basically no limits on the types of characters that you could come up with.
I LOVED starting new characters in a video game or D&D campaign because it meant that I got to come up with a name — and naming characters has always been one of my favorite things to do. I would always match the name to the personality, too; you’re not exactly going to name a great, bearded half-giant “Ron Weasley.” You definitely have to discover the name that fits them best. So I would roll syllables and consonants around in my head until I came up with a combination that I thought was perfect and then fit that to the character. I definitely did that a lot in this book, too, as names like “Kethras” and “Ynara” are some of my personal favorites that I’ve ever come up with.
I see biblical themes with Jericho, good vs evil and the Khyth who are not as powerful as they once were (which suggests some type of fall from grace), Explain how biblical themes influence you. If this is not conscious, why do you think these themes show up in your writing?
I spent 9 of my 12 years in Christian schools, so I’d say that Biblical themes are ingrained in my thinking — even if I didn’t do it intentionally in this book. I did, however, want religion to be a part of my characters’ lives, but in an absolutely real sense. There’s a line in the book where one of the characters, Dailus turns to his traveling companion and says “…this is not just Athrani lore, Olson. This is why the world is the way it is. It is as solid a truth as you’ll find.”
I think religion is important in any culture, and I definitely wanted the world that I created to be a believable one, full of depth and intricacies, much like how Tolkien created the languages that formed the basis of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. And, in Gift of the Shaper, it’s basically inescapable as some of the figures that appear in said “religions” actually show up in the story — they’re not just characters in the background whose names the characters utter in place of curse words. They’re real, and they walk among them, sometimes to the detriment of the other characters.
As soon as I saw Thornton and the hammer I immediately thought of Thor, what role does mythology play in inspiring your writing?
Thornton and his hammer was definitely an unintentional parallel to Thor — the character of Thornton was actually named after a friend of mine — but it’s one I’m glad I put in. Mythology has always fascinated me, whether it be Greek, Roman, Norse, or Aztec — each of them is full of these amazing characters and stories for explaining how the world works. I’ve always loved seeing how the pieces fit together and how they can influence events or bring about creation or destruction. And, just like any good story, each of them talks of a time when the world beings, and when it ends.
I actually just got done playing the newest God of War game for the PlayStation where you play this Roman god who has taken refuge in the Norse pantheon, and more often than not I would find myself wandering around and listening to one of the in-game characters, Mimir, describe events from the mythology and tell stories about why the world is the way that it is. I can also spend hours going down Wikipedia rabbit holes just reading about different myths because I find them all so fascinating. When I write, I try to capture the elements that I find most fascinating — creation, betrayal, mystical power — and put them on paper. Almost 90% of the time, I’ll ask myself “you know what would be awesome here?” And then I end up writing it. A lot of what I write is to satisfy my inner nerd.
Are the creatures in your novel ones that you have developed over time for different reasons or did you specifically create them for this novel? Explain telling an interesting story about how you created one of the beings.
When I started writing the story, I knew one thing for sure: I didn’t want to fall back on the old tropes of orcs, elves, and dwarves. To me, that has been done to death, and I wanted to stay away from it. So when I got far enough in where the Khyth revealed themselves to our protagonists, I wanted to differentiate them from humans in a certain way but not make them entirely alien. So I started with the eyes, which I pictured like when you put drops of dye into a bowl of water: swirling and ethereal. I also wanted them to have a fearful quality to them, and I can’t think of anything much more terrifying than a man who is literally on fire. So the very first time we see these Khyth, we’re just as scared as Thornton is when he sees their wild, swirling eyes and their ravaged, burning skin. It’s more harrowing than an elf, I would hope.
Do any of your creatures/beings possess characteristics of people that you know (maybe even yourself). If so, explain.
Absolutely. When they say “write what you know,” I took that to heart. When I write a character, I want them to be as real and believable as possible, so for almost every single one, I base them off someone I know. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that I based Thornton on a younger, stronger, more successful version of myself. My friend Anna was the basis for Elyasha, a soft-spoken red-haired girl who is trying to figure out her path in life. There are aspects of my own father in Thornton’s dad, Olson.
Basing them on someone I know lets me “see” how the character will respond to a certain situation, and “hear” how they speak so the dialogue sounds more real. I’m more of a stenographer in that sense, but that has always been the most enjoyable part of writing: the surprise. So much of my story is character-driven, and, being a discovery writer who makes up/discovers the story as I go along, even I was surprised by some of the twists and turns in the story. I was just sitting back and letting my characters do what I thought made the most sense. I like to think that it turned out pretty well.
What do you wish to evoke in your readers with this novel?
A connection with the characters, and a fascination with the mythology in the world I’ve created. I love it when someone comes away from reading the book and says “I really loved this character,” because then I know I’ve written something good that will stay with them. I want them to feel immersed in the world, to want to sit beneath the trees of Kienar and to climb the mountains of Gal’behem.
When the movie Avatar came out in theaters in 2009, I’ll never forget the feeling of sadness that came over me when I walked out and realized I couldn’t go back to Pandora again. It was beautiful and otherworldly, filled with vibrant colors and wonderful creatures that made me feel like I really was a part of it. To this day, it’s one of two DVDs I actually own (I’m counting the Lord of the Rings trilogy as one movie here). When readers close Gift of the Shaper for the last time, I want them to come away with that same longing to go back.
In closing, what are your future plans for writing? Are you working on anything?
I’m so glad I was finally able to figure out that writing is for me because I’m absolutely passionate about it now. I’ll soon be leaving Active Duty to pursue my career as a writer, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m about 90,000 words into the sequel of Gift of the Shaper, and I feel like I’m very close to finishing a first draft. I’ve also got a second project I’m working on that I pitch as “Jungle book meets Game of Thrones,” which I’m having a lot of fun with — mostly because the protagonist is a young woman, and it’s been a real challenge to me as an author to write her convincingly. Lastly, I’ve been recording the narration for the Gift of the Shaper audiobook because I absolutely wanted to be able to do the voices myself, and all of the pronunciation and place names were in my head to begin with. I figure that I’m the best person to get them all out there.
READ our review of Gift of the Shaper.
About D.L. Jennings
D. L. Jennings is a fourteen-year active duty veteran of the United States Air Force, serving under the Air Force Special Operations Command. In 2005, he earned his associate degree after graduating at the top of his Korean class at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, and earning the Korean Consul General award for excellence. He is a graduate of Bellevue University in Nebraska, earning a bachelor of science degree in security management in 2008. He finished writing his debut novel, Gift of the Shaper while serving on his ninth combat tour. He has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as several countries in Africa. When he is not reading or writing epic fantasy, he enjoys traveling, listening to ’90s punk, and watching Ohio State football.