Zachary D. Totah—Zac to his friends—is the newest Spec Faith contributor. His articles will appear every Tuesday, starting tomorrow. In order for our visitors to get to know Zac some, we put together an interview.
RM: Zac, tell us a little bit about your background—where you grew up, your family, what’s your day job, if you have one.
ZDT: I’ve lived in Colorado my entire life, mainly in Parker, a suburb of Denver. We’re in a neighborhood, but everyone has around three acres of land and the roads aren’t paved, so friends have joked we live in the middle of nowhere. Even though we’re only five minutes from “civilization.”
I’m the oldest of four kids (a sister and two brothers). My parents homeschooled us all the way through, and my sister and I have graduated. My siblings and I love to play sports, and my sister, second-youngest brother, and I are in a D3 hockey league. Everyone is a huge sci-fi and fantasy fan, and we love books and movies. Traveling was a big part of life for a number of years. Vacations ranged from Lake Louise and Banff in Canada to New England to Florida.
My day job is writing . . . sorta. I don’t get paid for it, but I spend a lot of time on stories and blogging. I’m earning a Communications degree through an online program, so that takes up a big chunk of time.
RM: Ah, growing up in Colorado! 😉 (Yes, that’s where I was born. My family still has some mountain property there.) How great that you enjoyed speculative fiction with your family. I can see why you’ve chosen the genre for your own writing. But Christian? Tell us about your faith journey. Did you grow up going to church?
ZDT: Both my parents are Christians, so I grew up going to church and hearing about God and Jesus. In my younger years, it was more of a distant thing. I made profession of faith when I was sixteen, but it’s only been in the past four years, after coming out of a legalistic environment, that I’ve come to appreciate the comfort of the Gospel and the importance of right doctrine.
RM: Praise God you came out of the legalistic environment with your faith intact. A lot of people don’t. But turning a page, what one thing would people be surprised to learn about you?
ZDT: Only one? Well . . . I like shopping. For books, obviously, but also for clothes. Which mainly consists of admiring all the things I want to buy and knowing I don’t have the money for it.
RM: I can relate! About the books and the admiring things I don’t have money to buy. But since you mentioned books, describe your journey as a novelist. What got you started writing, who influenced you, what are your aspirations?
ZDT: I actually wrote a blog post that partially answers this—and includes parallels to Lord of the Rings. As writers go, I was a late bloomer. I didn’t take any interest in writing until I was seventeen, when one day an idea popped into my head and I decided to turn it into a story. Haven’t looked back since. A couple early influences were Tolkien and Lewis. I know, standard answer. Seriously, though, they are amazing. More recently, I’ve been blown away by Brandon Sanderson. I want to write like him when I grow up. 😉
In terms of teaching influences, Jeff Gerke is probably at the top. I’ve read most of his craft books, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting him in person, twice at Realm Makers and twice for lunch—since we live only an hour apart.
Of course winning awards and making a living off my books would be great, but for me, the main ambition is to share the joy of stories with others. My goal with storytelling is to connect with people on a meaningful level by telling stories infused with imagination that shed light on truths such as redemption, sacrifice, and loyalty in a way that’s compelling and inspiring.
RM: No doubt about it: Lewis and Tolkien influenced a lot of us. But I wouldn’t call you a late bloomer. I mean, I didn’t start writing fiction until I was well into adulthood. I’d been teaching for nearly twenty years. I guess that’s the great thing about writing: no age limit!
We’ve already touched on this, but why don’t you expand some: why do you write speculative fiction instead of contemporary or historical or suspense or whatever else you might have chosen?
ZDT: Honestly, I can’t put a finger on exactly why I got started writing spec-fic. Again, books I’d read when I was younger played a part, but it’s only been more recently that I’ve figured out I love the sense of being transported. My tagline is Imagine, Dream, Explore, a condensed version of imagine the impossible, dream the unbelievable, and explore the uncharted. That sense of transportation to another planet or world, the thrill of knowing anything is possible, is the heart of spec-fic to me and I can’t get enough.
RM: Wow! I’d like to bottle that answer. Awesome tagline, especially the expanded version. And to be honest, I can’t get enough either, particularly of fantasy. And particularly of a specific kind of fantasy. So what is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?
ZDT: Oh dear. That’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. If I had to pick one, I’d go with Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. It’s incredible on many levels. Diverse characters, awesome magic systems, fascinating cultures, cool settings, imaginative creatures, complex plot lines, portents of world-changing doom, intense battles, court intrigue, philosophical musings, probing themes, mysteries and surprises aplenty. Everything epic fantasy should be. So. Much. Yes.
RM: OK, OK, I’m sold! I’m checking out Words of Radiance as soon as possible! But you’ve written epic fantasy, too. Tell us a little about The Skyriders Series.
ZDT: This is actually the fourth series I’ve written, but it’s the first one I feel was decent from the get-go. It’s a cross between Sword & Sorcery and High Fantasy. Four books total, though I’ve only completed the first two and they still need loads of editing (doesn’t everything?). The main feature is a worldbuilding one. A perpetual layer of cloud exists and is like the surface of the ocean. Below is a typical fantasy world, with the Nine Kingdoms of Kadriath playing the central role. Above, however, are mountain peaks and stone formations that poke through the clouds like islands, where another world exists. The two worlds have legends and tales of the other (as well as a complex history) and end up meeting and clashing.
The two main characters in the series are Alya, a princess outcast from Kadriath, and Elior, a Skyrider from the Sky Realm, called Azurin.
The first book is mainly Elior’s story, as he tries to stop a Skyrider from destroying the order while working to overcome fears and doubts stemming from his past. I’m reworking it slightly so it ties more directly into the second book.
The second book expands significantly and follows both the Nine Kingdoms, which the Skyriders call the Underland, and Azurin, primarily through the two points of view, Alya and Elior as they try to prevent an enemy army from conquering the world at the bidding of their gods.
The details for books three and four are still shady. What I have so far is that the third book builds on the outcome of the second book, and likewise the fourth book builds on the third, and to some extent the second. Some characters become more important, there’s a search for a Skyrider artifact called the Lifestone, catastrophes loom, and Alya and Elior sail a turbulent sea that tests them mentally, physically, and emotionally.
RM: What an intriguing world! I know this is a series I’m going to enjoy. But what, if anything, about your work is distinctly Christian?
ZDT: In my fantasy worlds, I’ve always included some notion of God. It’s not obvious every time and sometimes doesn’t directly impact the main characters. I’ve noticed I tend to write redemptive or sacrificial themes as well. And sometimes there aren’t any Christian elements, veiled or otherwise. It depends on the story.
RM: So I take it you’re not aiming exclusively to be published by a traditional Christian publisher. Fill us in about what you’re working on now.
ZDT: I put editing the first book in the Skyriders Series on hold so I could focus on school, but I’d like to get back to it soon. In the meantime, I just started posting installments of a novella called The Time That Was Not on my blog. I recently wrote a flash fiction story for Splickety Magazine’s Havok imprint that didn’t make the cut, so I’m deciding whether I’ll tweak it and submit somewhere else or post it on my blog.
I have a couple ideas simmering that might turn into short stories or novellas. And I’ve considered writing flash fiction for each edition of my soon-to-launch newsletter. In short, too many ideas and not enough time.
The ultimate goal is to publish my novels. If I can find homes for some of my shorter works, that would be great, but I also like the idea of putting them on my blog or in my newsletter—because who doesn’t love free stuff?
RM: Interesting. I recently read an article about content marketing which addresses that very idea. With all the “too much to write and not enough time, what makes writing a challenge? A joy?
ZDT: The challenges: Finding the time to write. Dealing with doubts and wondering if my efforts are in vain. Putting to death my perfectionism so I can actually move forward instead of obsessing over every little detail. Procrastination. EDITING.
On the positive side, I love crafting plots and creating characters and worlds. Writing is a great outlet for my creativity. Coming up with ideas is also addicting. It’s also cool to look back over something I’ve written and think, “Wow, I actually like this.” At the top of the list is the ability to share stories with people. Having people read and enjoy what I’ve written is the best reward.
RM: I suspect you’re going to experience a lot of that reward here at Spec Faith, Zac. But let’s not limit them to this venue. How can visitors find and follow you elsewhere on the web?
ZDT: Um, hop in a TARDIS?
Kidding aside, I’m most active on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, and I’m also on Instagram and Goodreads. Of course, I’d love to have more visitors to my website. If you’re into sci-fi or fantasy, I think you’d enjoy my posts.
RM: I couldn’t agree more. Thanks so much for sharing with us, Zac.