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Conversation with J.D. Mitchell

J.D.'s wit and insight combine as he covers dark comedy, writing competitions, managing expectations, self-publishing novels, Star Trek life lessons, Dungeons & Dragons, and the impact of modern advertising.

Conversation with J.D. Mitchell

J.D. Mitchell’s stories are informed by his historical studies and transient upbringing. The latter, while terribly angst-inducing, exposed him to a rich tapestry of people and places, as did his varied service industry jobs and a sixteen-year stint in the Public Service of Canada (but who's counting?). His published works include the dark fantasy Springtide Harvest and The Citadel of Bureaucracy, a satirical gamebook about surviving a very bad day in the civil service. You can find all his at stories at www.jdmitchellwriter.com.


J.D. is also the author of “Street Level” from Radon issue 6.


Q: Your Radonstory deals with intrusive advertisements. What is your personal experience with modern ads?


Annoyance. Suspicion. Occasional euphoria. I’m still trying to decide whether our phones are listening, we’re an unutterably predictable species, or ad saturation is so complete that a disturbingly timely commercial for dishwasher repair is just coincidence. I recently realized that advertising is affecting my browsing habits. I’ve become a risk-averse browser, avoiding potentially relevant content for fear of triggering a flow of poorly targeted ads. I don’t want to see a thousand more ads for stank-containing underwear for MEN who don’t wash because it might be woke. I’m just on Facebook trying to see how the people I didn’t like in high school are doing. Is that so wrong?


Q: You describe yourself as a dark comedy fan. How dark does your comedy typically go?


Oh, you know, suicide, exploitation, abuse. Hilarious stuff. Most of my comedic writing flows from quiet desperation. Well, not so quiet desperation. I often spout off in the office about our nonsensical policies and inevitable societal collapse, among other things. My coworkers laugh and tell me I should write comedy. So I did. My satirical gamebook flows directly from those conversations. “Street Level” probably came about after reading my mortgage statement more than seeing a frighteningly relevant ad about how to retire early. (Yup, the algorithm has me figured to a tee.) Even my fantasy short, which you can get for free by signing up for my quarterly newsletter (self-promotion, irony—yes, I know), is about a somewhat useless yet infinitely entertaining wizard’s apprentice trapped in indentured servitude. Everything that’s old is new again, sooner or later.


Q: What about Dungeons & Dragons inspires your fantasy writing?


Its grim capitalism, inherent gamesmanship (“min-maxing”), and racist/colonialist roots. I say that with all due reverence (I am writing this at a table strewn with first edition AD&D books, after all). There are so many analogues between our current realities and AD&D’s medieval setting, exploitative mechanics, and capitalistic underpinning. The entire game is about stripping dungeons of wealth so you can live a cocaine-fueled life of luxury. Wait, that was Gary Gygax; well, same difference. I became obsessed with the idea of AD&D as our disillusioned past. How old fantasy in general, and Tolkien specifically, are aligned with the colonialist underpinnings of western society—how we never questioned it and expected to profit by it. What we took for granted as Good and True in the West was, at least in part, a lie. We were rarely heroes spreading peace and prosperity and more often invaders profiting off death and woe. Sure, there were more evil evils, but that doesn’t excuse the damage. Lies and willful blindness engendered a misplaced pride in entire generations. Then society moved on. We know better now and must move on. Some aren’t taking the knowing or moving so well.


Q: What was it like writing a gamebook? Did you find it harder than writing a traditional novel?


Very fun and easy but for the frustrating bits. It only took three months to write, much faster than my novels. Partly because it’s only about 40,000 words, but also because of its progressive, encounter-based structure. It was easy to break into chunks and rearrange as needed. I’ve played so many gamebooks that I knew what I liked in terms of structure. One of the benefits of satire is being able to rip off (pay homage to) the best elements of the subject. My gamebook is also semi-autobiographical; it was easy to cherry pick the hilariously depressing aspects of my job and turn them into satirical representations. After all, the whole process is just analysis and synthesis, a policy analyst’s bread and butter. Frankly, the government has only itself to blame.


Q: What life lessons from Star Trek have resonated most deeply with you?


Sorry, I’m a Star Wars fan, all the way. Space opera is just way more fun—


Fine, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is pretty good. And the first season of OG Star Trek. Sure, I might have dressed up as Geordie La Forge for Hallowe’en in 1989, but I had this berry-colored shirt that had an angled flap that snapped at the shoulder; it looked like a Next Gen uniform. I mean, c’mon, the costume basically made itself. If I had to boil it down to one quote, it’d be: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.” I’ve devoted most of my life to public service despite the public hatred. Yeah, yeah, pension, benefits, job security and all that, but it really comes down to doing what needs to be done despite the horrifying bureaucracy. If not us, then who? It’s easy to shrug and criticize, much harder to actually do something about it. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.


Q: What was your experience competing in L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future competition?


Hesitant? I mean, the whole Scientology thing is off-putting. They say they aren’t affiliated . . . I don’t know. I do know that Joni Labaqui, Contest Director, is a super nice lady and easy to deal with, and that the organization offers a lot of free services for writers. The contest helped bolster my self-esteem after qualifying for a couple of their lower-tier awards. Those early days are rough for a writer. It’s about doing everything you can to improve your writing and sending your stories anywhere for feedback or recognition. That’s what makes them such a great target for scammers. Still, based on my experience, I’d recommend it. It’s free, you get judged by top writers in the field, and you get access to free workshops and information, if not an award to make you feel like you aren’t maybe wasting your time. Maybe avoid any locked rooms if you’re going to the awards ceremony. Just to be safe.


Q: Have you continued to submit to competitions as regularly in recent years? And do you still advocate for writers to manage their expectations?


God, yes, manage your expectations: Right into the ground. As soon as you lift off, manage them right back down again, you’re going to end up there anyway. I think that goes for all writers. You could be the best out there and are still going to have slumps, blocks, and bad reviews. Neil Gaiman, while writing a new manuscript, tweeted a few years ago that he didn’t know how he ever managed to write a novel. I don’t know if that should give us hope, but there it is.


As for competitions, I relied on them a lot in the early days to gauge my development. Did anyone like my stories? Could I win an award? Make a short list? Yes and no. It’s always a struggle, and prizes and markets vary. There are so many predatory markets. So many. There’s also the marketing angle to think about. Just being in SPFBO (Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off) this year had a huge impact on my sales. I’ll submit to competitions in the future, but I’m choosier than I was in the beginning. Make sure it’s a good fit.


Q: Self publishing can be overwhelming, especially for debut authors. How did you handle the many responsibilities that come with publishing when working on “Springtide Harvest”? Would you self publish again in the future?


I took it slowly. Sort of. You can’t do everything all at once. Not successfully anyway. The story comes first. Write the damn thing, edit it ten ways from Tuesday, get beta readers, edit more, then hire a professional. I knew going in that it’d take years to publish my first novel. Intellectually, I knew that. My gut was still screaming at me to get it published already so someone else didn’t write it first and I could make it as an author. All lies. Tell a story well and it doesn’t matter how many people have written it. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. I took my time writing, editing, submitting to publishers and agents, formatting, designing the cover, reading about how and where to publish and market, playing around with websites. Years. It took years and I’m still learning. Being brave enough to try things, fail, and learn is essential. Particularly the learning bit. I’ll probably be self-publishing for the rest of my life. Lots of stories to write yet.


Q: How has the self-publishing landscape evolved over the last five years?


Well, I’ve only been at this seriously for five years. It’s certainly become easier and easier to publish. There are so many resources out there, an embarrassment of info and support, really. It’s so profitable that stodgy old IngramSpark is starting to learn how to better exploit self-publishing authors. In my short time here, I’d say the biggest change is the whole AI issue. There were already enough writers flooding the market during lockdown without AI-generated books, covers, and illustrations thrown in the mix. It’s depressing. I’m finally getting some traction after years of constant work then some techbros come along and automate creativity. If art and labor are automated, what are the rest of us supposed to do?


Q: What inspired you to start your writing journey five years ago? Did you always have an interest, or were you looking to try something new?


I’d dabbled a bit as a kid and made some abortive forays as a young adult, but it wasn’t until my looming mid-life that I seriously started considering it. You can only draft so many reports and pay so many bills before wondering if there’s more to life. The mid-life crisis is seriously underrated. I bet a lot of great fiction and acts of philanthropy come from a reflective forty-something questioning their life and making a jump. What did Lovecraft say about the sciences piecing together dissociated knowledge? Sort of like that, but personal and experiential.


Q: From your five-year journey to semi-pro publication, what did you learn about yourself and your own writing?


Semi-pro, woo! Sorry, I just had to celebrate you saying it. My satirical writing voice has been there since I was a kid. Like everything in my life, I’m my own worst enemy. Self-doubt, worry, rash action. I’m like an anxious driver overworking the gas and brake. I often call myself “All or Nothing” Mitchell”. Knowing that doesn’t seem to help. I’m at my best when I get out of my own way and trust myself and the process.


Q: As you continue your writing path, will you focus on novels or short stories?


Both, I think. I like switching back and forth. Novel, short story, novella. Fantasy and sci-fi. Comedy and drama. I get bored and mix it up to keep things fresh. One of the benefits of self-publishing is that you don’t need to satisfy a publisher by writing the same thing over and over. I mean, you probably should to establish your brand and actually make money, but writing for me is more about spontaneity and truthiness. If a book doesn’t have it, I can’t enjoy it. Or write it, apparently.


Q: Do you have any other writing projects in the works for 2024?


I’m working on the second book in my fantasy series right now (Summer Sowing), though the J-O-B. has been kicking my ass lately, so it’s going slowly. Then there’s this satirical space opera I’ve got to revisit; I don’t want to wait on it too long. It’s probably right up Radon’s alley: a futuristic capitalistic nightmare from the perspective of a galactic Amazon driver struggling to make his spaceship payments, but funny. Beyond that, who knows? Opportunities come and go, only a fool doesn’t jump at a good one.

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