Ever since I was a little boy I was destined to be a nerd. I embraced it. I never denied it for an instant. I sat transfixed in front of the television as Transformers and Voltron fought glorious battles against evil across the screen. I played my thumbs raw on the earliest manifestations of the Final Fantasy series when I was in second grade – I graciously beat it for my friend – and was sucked in by the story. I lapped greedily at the great pools from which dragons drank and sweat with blacksmiths as they forged the Unbreakable Sword. I roared on the playground, an imaginary battleaxe clenched in my fist as I vanquished monsters and won the heart of the beautiful maiden (though that came a bit later). I was a Power Ranger. A paladin. A dark knight. A warlock. I summoned creatures in Magic: The Gathering and conquered text-based demons in online Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs).
I even LARPed. Once.
It goes without saying, then, that speculative fiction as a genre drew me in from the earliest days of reading as I gobbled hungrily through Anne McCaffrey, Robert Jordan, Robin McKinley, and so on. I even grabbed The Gift of the Magi once because I thought it was about wizards. I will read just about anything if it is good, but fantasy and science fiction have always had my heart. I doubt they’ll ever let it go.
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. Every once in a while my parents will attempt to embarrass me by showing me one of my earliest stories from first or second grade. Invariably they will mention the Questionable Rabbit (not the actual title of the story), an illustrated piece by me in which the drawings were so terrible that I actually had to explain to them where the rabbit was and what it was doing. To this day I still can’t recognize the gray blob on the page that was supposed to be my pet bunny, Cuddles. I wrote down fantastic adventures of me and my friends through uncharted lands, utilizing a magic system largely ripped off from Quest for Glory, my favorite game series at the time. It was great fun, if not great fiction.
I started my first book when I was thirteen. It was a verbose first-person about an assassin going around and, you guessed it, killing people for money. It clocked in over the next couple of years at 150,000 words. You will never read this book. The point is that writing was sneakily consistent throughout all of my life, and it took me just under 26 years to realize it. Pay attention, because this will come into play later on.
These stories – the ones I read, the ones I wrote, the movies I watched, the role-playing games I played – largely shaped my view of the world around me. They made me want something out of life, something a bit more glorious, adventurous. So, when I was fourteen, I walked downstairs and told my mom I was going to go to the United States Air Force Academy for college. Neither of us have any idea why I did such a thing. I didn’t have much of a family military history, and none of it was in the Air Force. It was just something I came down one morning and said I was going to do. Didn’t even know where the place was.
I’ll skip the boring parts in between then and now – a good chunk of years, mind you – and tell you that it wasn’t quite all I thought it was going to be. I’ve served a higher cause, I think, but it was never like the stories. And there’s the rub. I grew up wanting to live in one of those stories, wanting to be the hero, to slay the dragon. But It’s. Never. Like. The. Stories. Reality is a tricky, terrible-smelling demon that follows you around and taints everything you do, the bastard. And so where I went looking for adventure I found the necessity of routine. Where I went looking for glory I found Powerpoint presentations. And it got me to thinking: Maybe it’s okay that it’s not like the stories. Life is a beautiful, wonderful thing, in which can be found a great many things to be happy about. It took me a long time to come around to that realization, to understand that life isn’t a Final Fantasy game, but I’ve since recovered from the shock. I understand, now, that I can’t live one of those stories.
But maybe I can write it.
– Joseph Zieja