When you have the good fortune to read a James P. Blaylock novel and find yourself traveling a serpentine path to meet offbeat, endearing characters and nefarious villains, you’re likely to reach a destination that feels foreign, yet familiar. Even though the award-winning novelist’s world is decidedly fantasy, there’s a realism we can all relate to in his quirky characters and their often humorous circumstances.
In the opening of The Last Coin, for instance, Andrew Vanbergen, unable to sleep because of Aunt Naomi’s deafening snoring, climbs a ladder outside of her bedroom window in the middle of the night with the aim of removing her numerous cats and fantasies of removing her—only to be caught by his wife and neighbors.
Blaylock has written 25 books and short stories and is a tenured professor in the Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in Chapman University’s Department of English. He refers to himself as a writer of “weird, hometown, realistic fantasy,” a description that sums things up perfectly. Rather than traditional fantasy or science fiction, his work highlights fantastic happenings in the real world.
The hometown Blaylock speaks of is Orange County, where he has lived most of his life. He has resided in Old Towne since 1976, and one of his books, All the Bells on Earth, is set there.
Some of Blaylock’s work is known as steampunk fiction. The definition of this subgenre varies, but he refers to it as contemporary literature that is a spinoff of the work of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and other late Victorian writers, who influenced and inspired him.
“Steampunk stories are usually set in Great Britain during the Victorian era,” he says. “Science figures into the stories in often wacky ways. There was something wildly imaginary and colorful about that era.”
Though Blaylock is often credited for inventing steampunk, he and author friends Tim Powers (Anubis Gates) and K.W. Jeter (Morlock Night), were all writing in this area in the late 1970s. “My short story, “The Ape Box Affair,” was the first to be published in 1978,” he says. “It wasn’t until the late 1980s during an interview that K.W. coined the term steampunk, which solidified everything.”
Born in Long Beach in 1955, Blaylock grew up in Anaheim, where he roamed the Orange groves and strawberry fields surrounding his housing tract. In the groves, he climbed up into trees and read for hours. Those times spent reading and his career as an author might not have become a reality, without a fortuitous letter from his second grade teacher.
“Mrs. Rice sent a note home three months before the end of the year informing my parents that I was reading far beneath second grade level and would likely fail,” he says. “My mother got the book Why Johnny Can’t Read and used it to teach me. Before school ended, I read at grade level. By third grade, I read well above grade level and had become a bookworm.”
The Makings of Memorable Characters
While his mother gave him reading and writing lessons, his father’s habit to save odds and ends spurred Blaylock’s imagination in terms of topic and character.
“My dad was a crafty guy, who could build houses, fix cars—you name it. When he worked in his garage, he dropped oddball parts into coffee cans.” Blaylock’s stories often feature everyday items that take on a life of their own, like coins with mystical powers. And like the cans in his father’s garage, odd items and unforgettable people he’s known rattle around in his head until they emerge in his novels.
“Many of my characters are based on real people, who become their own quirky selves as I write them,” he says. “For instance, when we were kids, my mechanically inclined next-door neighbor made a “whirling earth machine” that could fly. The machine and my friend ended up in The Digging Leviathan, but the character, Giles, also has paranormal powers.”
Blaylock lets his characters loose on the page to see where they go and who they become. “My best ideas come during the writing process,” he says. “Writing is the inspiration, and the journey provides the epiphanies that can change the entire course of a book.”
One of Blaylock’s writing strengths is his characters, believes Powers. “Jim’s characters aren’t just rounded and believable, they’re fascinating people with intriguing ways of thinking and unique senses of humor.”
Author and Chapman professor of English and Creative Writing, Richard Bausch, agrees. “I think Jim is one of the best writers we have. His work is involving and wildly imaginative and wayfaring and smart. He knows things deep, and he writes wonderfully lucid prose.”
Chapman University President, Daniele Struppa, was already a Blaylock fan before meeting him a decade ago. “I fell in love with his exciting plots and the rich prose. I like how carefully he chooses the adjectives in his descriptions, yet without falling into some of the Lovecraftian (horror fiction) excesses. I hope he has many books in him, because I can't wait to read them. It would be terrific if someone—maybe a Dodge College student—translated one of his books into a movie.
Road Paved to Teaching about Writing
Blaylock wrote his first short story in fifth grade. In eighth grade, after turning in a story about a rat exterminator gone mad, his teacher gave him carte blanche to turn in short stories for writing assignments. “I made good use of that bargain all year. The arrangement held me to high writing standards, for which I’m very grateful.”
Initially, Blaylock, who enjoys surfing, planned to be a marine biologist, until he discovered that meant studying math and science. Instead, he earned a Bachelors and Masters of Art in Literature from California State University, Fullerton. After graduation, he and his wife, Viki, to whom he’s been married more than 40 years, lived in Northern California for a year before returning to Orange, where they settled in 1976. They have two sons, John and Danny, who have careers in the arts.
For a time, Blaylock worked as a carpenter during the day and taught writing composition at night, but eventually shifted to teaching and writing. He was a professor at California State University, Fullerton from 1980 to 1986. Following that he wrote fulltime for two years, but returned to teaching and writing. For 14 years, he directed the undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs at Chapman. Now he oversees just the master’s program, which gives him more time for teaching.
In addition to making his mark at Chapman, Blaylock started the creative writing program at Orange County School of the Arts, which he ran from 2000 to 2013. In recognition of his work with high school students, he received the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program Teacher Recognition Award in 2012.
“Jim is a great teacher,” says Struppa. “Students rave about his teaching and his passion. He’s smart, hardworking, creative, and yet humble and always ready to do what Chapman needs.”
Blaylock’s teaching skills are impressive, agrees Bausch. “Students love him, and they learn from him, because he earns their complete trust.”
Like a reader fascinated by unusual characters and plot twists, Blaylock finds it intriguing that he began teaching and writing professionally the same year in 1976. “For some reason, it boggles my mind that I began teaching and writing simultaneously more than 40 years ago. In many ways, it’s been a magical experience. And it all started in Orange.”