I first came to know JJ Shurte through twitter a few years back. He was a very interesting fella from Australia and had what seemed to be a bottomless well of knowledge when it came to post-apocalyptic video games and books. I’d soon find out that he was working on a book himself.
When I found out that he was indeed in the process of writing, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. It’s been a long two years (I’m terrible at waiting), but it finally happened. I recently read his book, Days Too Dark, while on vacation just a few weeks ago.
It seemed only natural to ask him if I could pick his brain. JJ suggested we involve Weilard in this interview, hailing all the way from Russia, and the artist responsible for the incredible artwork in Days Too Dark. This is quite the international team!
So with no further ado…
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me JJ. Please, tell me about yourself. Who are you? Where do you come from?
I’m currently someone who’s been staring at a screen for ten minutes, trying to figure out how to answer this question! Which is actually part of the reason I wrote Days Too Dark, to try to find a half decent answer. There’s this old Frank Zappa quote that’s something along the lines of “If you end up with a boring life because you did what other people told you to do, it’s your own damn fault.” As much as it sucks, that’s pretty much me.
Growing up I spent most of my time looking after people and putting others first, because that’s what was expected of me. Which sounds great and all, but after long enough of putting yourself second, if at all, eventually everyone else is off being successful and you don’t have a whole lot to show for your efforts. I guess the silver lining here is that once you’ve reached that point there’s not much you can do except start focusing on yourself. Better late than never, as the saying goes.
So, I’m 32, I live on the Sunshine Coast in Australia and I’m finally hashing out who I am as an individual.
When did you realize you first wanted to be a writer?
I was stacking shelves at a supermarket one night and I was talking to this guy about university, which had never even entered my mind before that point. I’d always been interested in stories because my dad was one of those people who always had a crazy anecdote that he could throw out at a moment’s notice. I was pretty directionless at the time, hence stacking shelves, and so this guy convinced me to apply to university so that I could learn how to write. He actually ended up being one of my tutors, funnily enough.
I’d never thought about higher education, I’d put so much effort into failing spectacularly at high school, so I sort of had to fudge my way into university. Due to the twists of fate I somehow graduated ahead of time without evening knowing it, and I came out with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Creative Writing with minors in English and History.
Due to a number of reasons I never really read that much as a kid, but I was always exposed to oral stories – so I’ve sort of come at writing from a different direction than most. Holy hell, you just connected the dots for me. I’ve always wondered why I prefer to write in first person instead of third person, and it’s because I grew up with people telling me stories in the first person and not reading stories in the third person.
I’ve legitimately never put that together, thanks heaps!
What do you think makes a good story?
I like realistic characters, flawed and utterly human. As someone who is seriously flawed and working on himself, I’m not at all interested in characters like Superman or Captain America but instead I’m interested in characters such as Darth Vader or Wolverine (at least, before he turned into a total Mary Sue.)
As interesting as zombies, a meteor or some moustache-twirling villain might be, I think a characters greatest nemesis should always be themselves. The greatest battles are against foes that find the chinks in our armour and target our weak points, so victory isn’t so much about defeating the enemy but rather overcoming our own weaknesses.
Have you always been interested in post-apocalyptic fiction?
Yeah, thanks to my dad I’d seen all the Mad Max films before I was five and I loved them. Then my cousin showed me Resident Evil 2 back on the original Play Station and I loved that too. I saved up all my lunch money to buy the first two Fallout games and played the absolute hell out of them both.
Before Post Apocalyptic fiction became mainstream a few years ago, a lot of people thought it was morbid and depressing to focus on the whole world ending. I was speaking to a psychologist about it and a person’s history does seem to play a major role in how much they like Post Apocalyptic fiction. Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone, some people might just have a thing for Ruin-Porn, but people who have a background of Depression or who have experienced some kind of trauma do tend to gravitate towards the Post Apocalypse.
While most will see the world ending and think, “no, this is too bleak,” others will see it and go, “yes, this is what life can be like.” Obviously there aren’t real zombies shambling around, yet, but the brutal reality that’s always depicted in Post Apocalyptic fiction is something that a lot of people can relate to. Sometimes life just sucks, it can be harsh and unfair, and you’ve got to struggle through with only the slightest shred of hope to fuel you. Post Apocalyptic fiction shows that, and it can be comforting to have those sorts of experiences represented and validated.
JJ, tell me about your book, Days Too Dark.
On a narrative note, Mars got shot right before the book starts and because he’s got nothing but time on his hands he’s forced to reflect on the life he’s lived. He’s had some hard times, both before and after the world ended, and they’ve shaped him into someone with some serious issues. As hard as it’s been at times though, it takes a certain level of self-pity to write about your own struggles while also writing about the whole word coming to an end.
In terms of construction, way back at the very beginning Days Too Dark was actually based on this dream I had, and it evolved from there. Originally I wasn’t even going to do anything with it, it was just this short story that I wrote for fun, but then a few things happened that made me work on it.
There was this massive push against straight, white male characters a few years back, especially the “brooding loner protagonist” type. I thought to myself, “well that sucks, that’s the only type of character I can relate to!” And so in my contrarian way I decided to devote myself a little more to Days Too Dark simply because I wanted to show that such a character can have depth, especially if you’re exploring them from the inside.
Then my dad died, and that was not a fun day. It’s never easy when a massive segment of your life is just ripped away without warning, and you’ve got to learn how to operate in a different world. Obviously losing a parent is never a good thing, but it did open up the chance to change how I operated. Both my parents did the best they could, nobody could ever say otherwise, but they’re both just people and flawed like any other.
Eventually I got sick of my own shit and started going to therapy, which really helped a lot and I cannot recommend it enough. That’s when Days Too Dark stopped being just a Post Apocalyptic story and started being a way for me to look at my life from an external point and analyse a few things. It’s a pretty weird way to gain perspective, but it’s certainly worked. Even if it’s not a financial success, there’s still the personal growth that writing and publishing it has fostered within me. Which is certainly not as quantifiable as gold bars dropping from the heavens, but it’s worth a hell of a lot more to me.
Why an epistolary novel?
Who doesn’t want to read someone else’s journal? It’s so tempting to delve into another person’s internal world, which is probably why it’s so taboo. I totally caved and flicked open why girlfriends journal the other day, I know it was a dick move but luckily it’s all written in Mandarin so I couldn’t read anything I shouldn’t have. I still got a smack upside the head though!
I went with the epistolary novel format because I’ve always loved the idea of having an artefact from within the story – it’s the ultimate ‘show, don’t tell.’ You could simply be told that the character is tripping balls on pain killers, or you can see that their hand writing suddenly looks different and they’re rambling and ranting about things they’ll regret saying later on.
There’s just something about the Post Apocalyptic genre that lends itself perfectly to the epistolary novel format. There’s always some journal where the last entry is from some guy who is frantically writing his final thoughts as the zombies munch on his intestines. You see it in the notes you find in games like The Last of Us, Horizon Zero Dawn and Mad Max – little stories from the long dead that’re scattered about the world, used to add depth to a setting.
I think we’re always trying to find ways to connect with other people, and an epistolary novel lets you do just that. It’s another person’s story and their take on the world, even if that world is a fictional ‘what if?’ world that never was. The handwritten text, the old journal pages, the artwork and the inserts – all these things add depth and authenticity to the story, which allow people to form a connection easier.
What kind of input did you have with the artist?
Weilard was fantastic, I’ve worked with him before on another project that I will totally get around to actually writing one day… I swear!
I’ve worked in creative teams where the higher-ups were real hands-on and they wanted to micromanage us every step of the way, that’s not how I wanted to run a team. These experiences taught me that you really need to let the artist bring their own element to the work they’re creating for you. The more control you have over the image, the less control they have… and they’re the ones drawing the damn thing, so that’s never going to end well.
I gave Weilard a rough description of the images I wanted drawn up, as well as a few key details that were needed, and then just let him loose. A few tweaks were needed here and there with a couple of images, but most of the time he was giving me images that were superior to what I asked of him. You’ve got to trust your team, because they’re going to take what you want and use their skills to turn it into something better. It really helped that Weilard is someone who is equally passionate about the Post Apocalyptic genre, he fully got understood what I was going for and started pumping out some seriously great artwork.
I think that’s the main thing here as well, as an epistolary novel it’s not just about the writing because the artwork has to tell part of the story as well. There are plot points and clues hidden in the artwork that you won’t pick up on if you’re just reading the text, so the artwork is less a side note and more an integral aspect of the story. I’m really happy with how it all turned out, and if you ever want to commission some Post Apocalyptic artwork, you should totally hit up Weilard on Twitter.
Andrey Lyapichev AKA Weilard
Speaking of the artist, look who stopped by! Welcome Andrey! I’ve been following your post-apocalyptic artwork for a few years now. Could you tell us about yourself? When did you first start drawing?
Well. I think readers not interested in numbers and dates, so I mark one important milestone when all changed for me. When I was 10 years old, father receive from USA first IBM PC-XT 286 for work. In the first year I understand – I want to do games. I save this decision in my heart for the years and when I grow up – went in game development industry. First drawing I did little bit before this important date.
In game development industry I work as designer and 3D modeler. I always offering my customers my drawings, but they love to use other of my skills instead my drawings. I work in industry almost 20 years. But only last 5 years people start mentioned my art as art, not just scribbles (smile).
Why the post-apocalyptic genre?
Strong question. But I have answer. No one thing not underline life as death. Sounds horrible but for me it’s truth. When you see street wreck of old car, you think about this car not as death body. You think that this rustiness is… oldness. He is not dead. He is old. Human creations live everywhere, and we can’t understand normally how large this world. What path we pass (I mean humanity). And best way to understand this pull the trigger and say human history – stop. Send people back to stone age, to give this people stay and think what world around them, what world they have before, and what world they lose. Because I think all of we do on the Earth lead us to the giant problem.
Also… post-apocalyptic genre for many of us, and I tell about gamers, it’s like a dream, like romantic tales about heroes in troubled land. And I think ruins of civilization it’s better background then background of fantasy kingdome or something else. It’s all near us. We already live in post-apocalyptic world… just not understand this fact fully.
Tell me about your project with JJ Shurte. How long did it take you to create the artwork for the book?
We work together almost one year with project “Days Too Dark” and before work with illustration for “Metanoia” (also post-apocalyptic world). It was the long road. But I’m very happy that I meet with Joshua. It’s amazing guy. Really. Working with this author – real pleasure. I can say honestly – it’s a best customer I have in my life. Not because we do post-apocalyptical things. But because he is interesting person, because in some cases we can say – that we survive when work with this book. One time Joshua write me and say that his home under water, because flood. It’s fantastic experience.
And we often support each other. Because we just a people with some problems. Sometimes we happy. Sometimes we solve problems. And I perfectly know that I can visit Joshua any time I want (in network of course) and he is always ready to answering, or just talking, or help me. It’s amazing feelings. I think now we little bit more than just artist and his customer.
I noticed it was a different style than your usual work. What made you decide to try something new?
O no… (laughing). Not I decide. Joshua wants. He is wants ink-style images. It’s not my favorite style of drawing. But after “Metanoia” drawings I understand that I can’t lose chance to work with Joshua again. So I decide use style he is want. To make our together post-apocalyptic road little bit longer.
You’ve done some work for video games. Can you tell me about them? I saw that you’re involved with an upcoming post-apocalyptic video game. What’s that like?
I love work with games. And last eight years (or more) I work only with PA genre. Because I totally love it. PA genre for me it’s also loneliness. And I love it. I love feeling of contemplation. When you say “stop” himself and just enjoy the view. All of my artwork I use this principle. I say “stop”, then I ask myself “what you want to tell observers right now?”. And in most cases it’s a song I sing about loneliness and beautiness of the death world.
When I receive offer to work with “Dark Crystal Games” as Lead Artist I think a lot. Because it’s not first of my game project and I little bit tired from this (count of games I was involved so huge so I’m start forget the names of the games), but theme… theme always bought me. Chance to create good post-apocalyptic game much stronger than habit to be prudence.
Unfortunately I can’t share info about this project because I’m tied by NDA. It’s a very hard for me, because I am a very transparent man. You can visit one of my streams and realize that I have no barrier between watcher and me.
Andrey, thank you so much for giving us some insight to your work! Where can folks go to see your artwork and/or contact you?
It’s easy. To receive actual and fast infos I recommend my twitter @Weilard. For personal sharings, details about my work, and private stories (behind the scene) I recommend my Patreon page. https://www.patreon.com/weilard/ For just artwork… https://weilard.deviantart.com/
Oh hey, JJ’s back! Hey, JJ, what is the most difficult part of “the process” for you?
I like complex plots that’re interwoven, I like layers and I like to plant seeds in book one that don’t pay off until book two or even book three. This means that I have a really… really long construction phase, as it takes a long time to plot everything out and make sure it all makes sense.
I’m really picky with details as well, with things like the names of main characters I usually try to chose something with meaning to it. The protagonist of Days Too Dark has a name that has some serious connotations for the story, as any Australian will know, and there’re multiple layers of meaning behind his first, middle and last names.
Because of this, it takes me a really long time to start the actual writing process. I may have tens of thousands of words written down, but zero story written out. It’s a lot of time to invest, but it allows for a level of depth that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve. My mum’s always yelling “nobody is going to notice these details!” at me, but I still think she’s wrong. I know there’re folks out there that will appreciate the extra effort.
Interesting… considering the amount of work you put into your writing, tell me one thing you edited out of Days Too Dark.
I’ve been adding to it for so long that I’m having trouble thinking of something that I’ve actually taken away. The main thing that comes to mind though is that originally the character was called Marcus, after a character I played in a high school play who was in turn named after Marcus the Super Mutant from Fallout 2 and Fallout New Vegas.
I can’t go into why I had to change that characters name to Maralinga/Mars, because it’ll spoil what happens in book 2, but needless to say the change opened up whole new avenues for me and added multiple layers of depth. In the end it was a net gain, so no complaints.
You know, reading Days too Dark, it came across as though it may have been a form of therapy for you. Was it? Are there real-life inspirations behind your protagonist/antagonist?
Yeah, as mentioned previously it was very much a way for me to look at my own life from an external point of view. You’d be surprised at how much writing fictional characters requires you to understand human nature, characters are still people who have to make logical, or illogical, decisions. I’m not a psychologist by any means, but if you spend enough time on self improvement you pick up a thing or two about healthy mindsets and behaviours, neither of which Mars has.
It didn’t happen all at once, I wasn’t ready to deal with or even acknowledge some of the stuff that’s happened, but at a certain point I just decided to own it and go all in. The character of Mars is basically just a fictional version of me, a much worse off version that never tried to improve his life. If he brings up some random event that happened before the world ended, there’s a strong chance that it’s based on a true story. I tweaked little details here and there to better suit the story, but overall I’m confident in saying that 99% of what he’s writing about has actually happened to me in real life.
While he became a pilot and I went to university, the main difference between us is our view on things; Mars and I share a past but our outlooks are very different. He’s someone who is very much trapped, and shaped, by his past and he’s made no real effort to change this. It may have taken me a while, along with writing a whole novel, but I’ve made some pretty lengthy strides to improve myself these past few years. Mars may have found himself a niche in this new and terrible world but he is by no means happy, and he’s got a long journey ahead of him before he finds any sort of peace.
Most of the other characters in the book, at least in Mars’s close circle, are based on real people as well. Some will like how they’ve been portrayed, others won’t. I’m not really fazed either way, if they don’t like it then they can write their own damn book.
So yeah, I’m the type of guy that puts himself into a self published Post Apocalyptic novel. I’ll let you know when I decide which government building I’ll occupy for a month.
Is there a message in your story that you hope your readers will grasp?
Mars is a cautionary tale; get over your shit before it becomes your world. He’s someone that’s so focused on all the bad that’s happened to him over the years that he doesn’t appreciate what he’s got. He’s designed to be understood, not loved. You don’t have to agree with the choices he makes, but by the end of the story you should at least be able to understand why he’s making them.
Any future projects coming up?
I’ve got a number of projects that I’m working on, it’s just a matter of deciding which one to devote myself to. I could write the sequel to Days Too Dark, but it’s going to be similarly expensive and time consuming to put it all together, so I may need to put this series on the backburner for a while and work on something a little more manageable.
Everything I’ve got is Post Apocalyptic though, so fans of the genre don’t need to fret about me straying too far away from the doom and gloom.
Well, I look forward to seeing what you work on next! What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with you or follow you (i.e., email, website, blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)?
Twitter seems to be the way to go these days, I’m there as @JJShurte and I’ve also got a website, JJShurte.com. I mostly rant and rave and Post Apocalyptic storytelling in books, movies and games.
JJ, thanks so much for providing some awesome insight to you and your work! It’s been a real pleasure watching your “let’s play” videos (of which your Mad Max game video helped me out more than once) and following the progress of your book. And thank you for sharing some space with Weilard and allowing him to sit in with us!
J.J. was a guest on Episode 5 of my podcast. Click below to listen!