Jim Dey: County board member doubles as fiction writer

Serving on the county board may have its benefits, but providing a sense of adventure isn't one of them.

So forgive Champaign Democrat Josh Hartke if his mind sometimes wanders to a distant land that is far, far away, a place where dragons and wizards outnumber Democrats and Republicans and "the winds of Chaos (that) blow eternal" have nothing to do with Champaign County's budget woes.

Hartke's imagination isn't just worldly, it's other-worldly, and it's helping him to make a living as the author of fiction distributed by Imagined Interprises Inc., a Las Vegas-based publisher of fantasy and science fiction novels.

"I never thought I'd have as much fun at a job," said the 39-year-old Hartke, whose first novel came out in 2012 with a second tentatively scheduled for summer 2014.

He's the author of "The Dragonsoul Saga," a projected five-volume epic. If you don't read fantasy novels, it can be hard to comprehend. But there's a huge worldwide market for Hartke's type of writing, and he's hoping to strike gold by building an identifiable brand that readers will embrace.

So what is "A Balance Broken," Volume 1, about?

Like many novels of various genres, Hartke said it's a coming-of-age story.

"What is 'The Catcher in the Rye' but a coming-of-age story?" Hartke said of the ground-breaking novel published decades ago by J.D. Salinger. "The ideas are all the same — good characters you fall in love with. Mine happen to be full of dragons and wizards.'

In Hartke's tale, the young protagonist is trying to save himself and his family "from a great darkness."

What's the "great darkness"?

"That's part of the surprise," said Hartke.

Here's how Hartke's publisher cast "A Balance Broken."

"In a time before the Dragon Wars consumed Tarmor, the Dragonsouls ruled over the five races. Then, during the destruction of the Cataclysm that followed the wars, the Dragonsouls disappeared. Most wizards thought them destroyed forever, and a great peace settled over the land, each of the five races finding its place, decimated and hidden as it may be. But the winds of Chaos blow eternal, and peace can never last." Yikes.

Before Hartke started writing novels for a living, he mostly wrote computer code. Before that, he was just a big ol' farm boy who grew up in Dieterich, a small community near Effingham. He studied economics and computer science at the University of Illinois.

But Hartke always had an interest in writing, which stemmed from his interest in reading. Hartke recalls that he reads all kinds of fiction and non-fiction while he was growing up. But he was particularly fond of fantasy novels, like those by J.R.R. Tolkien.

"That's what I read for fun," said Hartke.

He tried his hand at writing during his first summer home from the UI, producing six chapters of a novel and then putting the work away to pursue more practical activities.

Hartke said he picked up writing again after he was laid off from his job as an office manager at the UI's civil engineering department in 2008 and had unexpected time on his hands. He rewrote those first six chapters and then the rest of the story.

Hartke sent his final product off to numerous publishers, and he can show the curious his rejection letters. But Imagined Interprises was intrigued, telling him that there was enough it liked to offer him an opportunity to rewrite the story under the supervision of a professional writer who knew how novels should be structured.

Hartke said rewriting "A Balance Broken" consumed a year but was worth the effort.

"It took a lot of work. But it was the thing that had to be done," he said.

Hartke debuted "A Balance Broken" at the 2012 Comic-Con Convention in Las Vegas, a gathering for authors, readers, publishers and movie producers that draws hundreds of thousands of people.

"It's the biggest convention of its kind in the world," he said. "It's geekdom at its finest."

Hartke said he received a great reception, discovering the thrill of autographing his books for excited fans.

"(Signing autographs) is the favorite thing I've ever done professionally," he said. "It's almost better than getting paid for it — almost."

Hartke writes under the name "J.T. Hartke," the initials being a trademark of authors and a key to building what he calls the "J.T. Hartke brand."

"If you get someone with the first book, you get them for the next four," he said.

Although he spends most days writing fiction, Hartke has his feet planted firmly on the ground as a county board member. He said serving on the 22-member board is "the most exciting challenge in my life."

"I think you can do a lot of good in local government," Hartke said.

Just as with his writing, Hartke was long ago bitten by the political bug. In 2002, he was his party's designated sacrificial lamb in a race for the U.S. House of Representatives against an entrenched incumbent, the now-retired U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson. Although active in the local Young Democrats, Hartke said he keeps politics and fantasy writing "on divergent paths."

With three more books to write in his saga and a schedule that calls for completing one every 18 months, Hartke is promising his fans plenty of twists and turns on the road to completion. He's promising his audience "characters that grow and change."

"Good and evil can be relative terms, depending on which side you're on," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion
Topics (2):Books, People

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