A thrill-ride adventure novel capturing the adventure, mystery, legend, and lore of America
Year of the Horse is literary fantasy at its very best—a novel that delves into our myths, legends, hopes, and fears; a coming-of-age fable set in our fondly remembered (if often fictional) past—an adventure more than capable of setting your hair on end.
Year of the Horse tells the story of Yen Tzu-lu, a child of Chinese immigrants unwillingly pressed into service by a gang of roughnecks bent on stealing a gold mine from a shadowy villain deep in the western wilderness. With Tzu-lu as our guide, we experience a landscape of legend, stand toe-to-toe with those larger-than- life heroes and villains of our shared American mythos, and learn the inescapable facts that have both enriched and plagued our nation from its inception.
Resonating with echoes of Mark Twain, Larry McMurtry, and J. K. Rowling, this is a book of fabulous adventure and deep resonance. Allen gives readers a picture of how America sees itself, and in so doing he offers up both a heroic vision of the past and hope for the future.
Hi Justin, thanks so much for visiting with us on YA Fresh! Could you please tell us a little about your writing background and how you made your first sale?
Justin: Fiction writing has been my primary focus since college. I attended Boise State University (Fiesta Bowl Champs, go Broncos!), where I majored in Philosophy and minored in Fiction Writing. But I always intended to chase a career in writing. My goal was, and still is, to create an archetypal character (just one!) - the kind that seems to exist beyond the bounds of the printed page. The best example I can think of is Sherlock Holmes. Otherwise intelligent, witty people have been known to go to 221B Baker Street, in London, to see the apartment of the famous detective of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and stories. And most of those people KNOW that there never was a Sherlock Holmes. Heck, I’ve been tempted to go myself. Why? Well, because Sherlock FEELS real. Can you imagine the world WITHOUT Sherlock Holmes? I can’t. I often wonder if the whole world wasn’t just waiting for Sherlock to spring onto the scene. Maybe it was! So that’s the dream. To create a character that leaps from the page and into the hearts and souls of readers everywhere. Dang! That’s one tough dream, hunh?
Anyway, after college I figured the best way to learn how to create such a character was to go to writing school. So I went to Columbia University’s Writing Program. I suffered horribly at Columbia. I hated what I was writing, and I hated what everyone else was writing. It was all so subtle. Blech! Then one day I was talking to a classmate – the brilliant novelist Kelly Braffet as a matter of fact (name dropper!) – and she told me that she’d been working on a fantasy novel about some young people trapped in a castle. “Why don’t you bring any for us to read?” I wondered. As it turns out, she was wisely concerned about how she would be viewed by our other classmates (and instructors) if they knew she liked (gasp!) genre fiction. Being foolish and more than a bit rebellious myself, I sat down that very night and composed a story which would become the basis for my first novel, “Slaves of the Shinar.” It was unabashedly a heroic fantasy adventure – very much in the realm of Robert E Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. I showed it to everyone!
Did the other Columbians look down at me for writing a genre piece? I won’t lie to you, some did. But many more were surprised to be reading something that was written first and foremost for the sake of pure fun. Either way, I no longer cared. For the first time in a long while, I was excited by what I was writing.
It took me five more years to finish that novel, but I have never looked back. “Slaves of the Shinar” was published by The Overlook Press in 2007.
Readers and writers often like to get a behind the scenes peek at an author's writing routine. It would be great if you could please share your typical writing day schedule.
I don’t have a set schedule. I get up fairly early to make breakfast and pack lunch for my wife (she works at a middle-school in Brooklyn). I check up on all my correspondence (clear out the junk mail folder), and try to figure out what appointments I simply MUST keep that day (a ballet rehearsal at 11:30, dentist appointment, answer some questions for Kelly at YA Fresh, check up on the latest news on college football), and then get down to some serious writing. I usually have lunch around noon (woops, missed that rehearsal. I guess I was so into writing that new werewolf wedding scene that I lost track of time), and then get back to work. If I am writing well, I tend to look up again around four, realizing that I once-again missed the dentist (root-canal shmoot-canal, right?). Seriously though, I try to write passionately. If that means I get nothing done in a day, and instead roll on the floor and cry because it is all just SO HARD, and the stupid characters never seem to want to do what they are supposed to, so be it. If I write thirty-five pages in ten hours, great! But either way, it has to be done with passion and belief.
Well, I'm glad you kept our interview appointment. LOL! Please tell us about your latest novel Year of the Horst and what we can expect from your characters.
Justin: “Year of the Horse” came out this past October 23rd (my wife’s and my anniversary, as a matter of fact. Nice right?), again from Overlook. It tells the story of an American boy named Lu, the child of Chinese immigrants, who gets drafted into a troop of rough customers bent on crossing the continent and then stealing a gold mine from the devil. Yep, you read that right. They are going to try to steal a gold mine from THE DEVIL.
Lu’s companions on this journey are the famed gunfighter Jack Straw, a former slave and sharpshooter named Henry Jesus, a Californio outlaw who goes by the nickname ‘Chino,’ a southern gentleman by the name of John MacLemore, and his wild-child daughter Sadie. As they cross the continent they have to contend with violent cavalry soldiers, vengeful Native Americans, a murderous cult, the headless horseman, the ghost of Henry Hudson, a gang of fire demons, a were-coyote, and a whole town full of vicious racists. And if they survive all that, they still have to beat the devil.
Since you ask about the characters in particular, I want to tell you about the one closest to my heart - Sadie. I don’t know if she’s quite on the level of that archetypal character I was talking about earlier, but she sure does mean a lot to me. Sadie is a special girl. She’s rough and tough (swears with the best of them), capable (an expert rider at the age of sixteen), is marvelously brave and loyal, and not willing to take crap from anyone. She is also beautiful and sensitive (her feelings get hurt easily, though she tries not to show it), worries about her Dad, wishes she knew more about her mother (she died when Sadie was just a year old), feels out of place sometimes in a world dominated by men, and has huge, wonderful dreams that she wouldn’t give up for anyone or anything. I guess I am just awful proud of Sadie, and want everyone to like her (I feel like a Dad sending his daughter off on her first day at school!).
Sounds really awesome and action-packed! What's up next? Do you have another project in the works? If so, please tell us about it.
Justin: I have three projects, actually (You’re right if you’re thinking that may well be too many). I’m writing a science fiction book called “Tomorrowland,” a travelogue about the US National Parks, and, if you happen to be in New York later this summer, a ballet is being produced based on a story I wrote called “The Beatitudes.” They’re all really different projects, each taking up huge amounts of time. And I’m thinking about adding another book to the mix!
I’ve been thinking about writing a sequel to “Year of the Horse.” I have two ideas for sequels, as a matter of fact. One idea would have Sadie and Lu trying to convince Quetzalcoatl to help protect the United States from a clan of Chinese dragons being controlled by the British East India Company.
The other idea would have Jack Straw working with Al Capone and Eliot Ness to find and destroy a serial-killer and his vampire flunkies in Chicago in the 1930’s.
Thanks again for sharing with us, Justin! I wish you the best with you writing. Would you like to close with a writing tip?
Justin: Tell you what, I’ll give you two! The second is lagniappe!
Subtlety is for real life, not writing. When you write, be bold! If you like fantasy or romance, action or mystery, horror or emotional drama, coming-of-age stories or stories about kids in serious trouble, I say embrace your passion. Think back on the books that you have enjoyed the most. I’ll bet that in nearly every case you are remembering a book that had huge seemingly earth-shattering themes, enormous swings of fear and trepidation followed by thrills of triumph and joy. Well, don’t hold back on the fun for your readers! If you want to write a horror novel about zombies then, for love of pete!, scare us ‘til we think we might wet our pants. If you want to write romance, make us love your ideal man and wish, oh how we want to wish, that he would be OUR ideal man as well. If you want to write about kids in trouble, don’t hesitate to keep letting them slide ever deeper into the pitchiest darkness (she’s a drug addict and pregnant at twelve? How in the world will she survive?). If you want to write fantasy, make your pages crackle with magic, so that we feel the wonder even in the most ordinary of things. As readers, we want to be thrilled. So thrill us, baby, thrill us!
No matter what sort of work you choose to write, eventually you will be faced with writing some form of action scene. It’s unavoidable. Your characters are going to have to DO THINGS. My advice to you is to keep their movements focused, simple, and revealing. You know how you can watch a movie nowadays where two guys are fighting, and the camera angles switch
around so fast that you have no idea what in the heck is going on? Well, that mistake gets amplified when it is made on the printed page. Let a single action speak volumes! One kiss can say more than a hundred kisses described in detail. One gunshot. One swing of a sword. One slap. One suicidal leap. Whatever it is, that one action can be oh so meaningful, just so long as you don’t hide it beneath a pile of other actions. In writing, action is almost always a result, not a cause. As readers we are really interested in WHY one character shoots another, one character kisses another, one character walks-out on another. If we know WHY they are doing whatever they are doing, then the action itself is nothing more than the fulfilling of a destiny a whole book in the making.
Great tips, Justin!! Okay, YA Freshers, leave a comment and be entered for a chance to win a copy of Justin's Year of the Horse!! Contest begins now and will end Sunday night, February, 28th. Winner will be announced Monday, March 1st! Happy commenting!!
Justin Allen is the author, most recently, of the all-ages fantasy-western, "Year of the Horse." The Colorado Springs Independent calls the book, “Charming and full of heart… like a secret discovery from the dusty back shelf of a library,” while the Philadelphia Weekly Press calls it “Lots of fun.”
Justin also has a passion for classical ballet, having performed with such companies as Dances Patrelle, Eidolon Ballet, and Idaho Dance Theatre. Justin is roughly six feet tall, weighs somewhere around 185 pounds (often more, to his chagrin), has dark-brown hair and eyes, and suffers from near-sightedness, motion-sickness, and a tendency to get angry at airport personnel. His wife, Day Mitchell, a licensed master social worker, is trying to help him overcome this last item, but finds the going hard. He can be contacted via his website: justin-allen.com.