Hello, friends! The Wheel has turned all the way around to Thursday again, which means two things: the weekend is not too far away, and it's time for our Rotating Features blog!
Last week, on the 19th of September 2013, Dragonmount celebrated a very special day--its 15th birthday! That's right, this incredible website which has been part of the lives of some of us, for many years now, is 15-years-old and going strong.
To celebrate this momentous occasion, we decided that this week's article would feature a very special interview, with Jason Denzel, the founder and owner of Dragonmount and one of his right-hand cronies... that is to say, assistants... Jenniferl, previously known as Kathana, Dragonmount's project manager.
Without further ado, here is that interview. I posed a long list of questions, written below in italics, and they gave their answers when they felt they had something to say. I hope you find it interesting!
An Interview With Jason and Jenn
What problems did you encounter when creating Dragonmount? What was the most difficult time in the history of Dragonmount? How did you overcome those problems?
[Jason] The biggest challenges in running Dragonmount has always been overcoming technical hurdles. The original version of the website ran on a shared Windows server sitting on a network connection with a speed of around 700 kbps. That was fast back in 1998, but for comparison, that speed is about 9 times slower than the average home internet connection in the US today. It was housed in somebody's apartment and I had little to no control over it. I knew nothing about hosting websites at the time, so I was completely at the mercy of somebody else.
Dragonmount received a lot of visitors right away and the traffic would frequently crash the website. Fortunately, I've always had no shortage of incredible people who were willing to help. In those early years I relied heavily on people like Robert C and Jon J just to keep the website online.
Eventually I got to point where I was no longer renting somebody else's server space, but building my own servers to have them hosted in rented data centers. That was a disaster because my hand-built servers tended to fall apart. One time I had two large CPU fans pop off the motherboard during shipping, and it smashed up several internal components. I also went with the cheapest service I could find back then, and got, well… the cheapest service. If the website crashed, it would take half a day or more before somebody near that facility would drag themselves over to press the reset button.
I finally surmounted this problem when I moved into my current house about 9 years ago. The house was brand new and had fiber optic lines running to it. As a result, my internet provider offered a fiber service which, in 9 years, has never once gone down. I've had 100% uptime for almost a decade. They offered a reasonably priced package of 35 Mbits (about 4-5 times faster than the average US internet speed). This was a dream come true cause now I could stop paying massive hosting fees and have direct access to the server. To this day, I have no problems with our connection speed.
But the final technical hurdle has proven to be the greatest challenge: keeping up with the demand. Dragonmount is a big website with a big community. A lot of people enjoy the Wheel of Time series and we've always been the go-to site for it. As a result, our hardware hasn't always been able to handle the load. Up until the last 3 or 4 years, Dragonmount ran entirely on a single server. I had backup servers, but really, it was just one computer running the entire website.
When Robert Jordan died, we got about 2,000 times our normal traffic to his blog. And because we hadn't optimized the website as well as we could have (no caching, no pagination for long lists of comments, etc), our poor little server was simply destroyed. I was invited out to his funeral, so for basically a week nobody could remotely access my crashed server. I remember calling my wife every few hours at home asking her to press the reset button on the server.
Those days were our darkest. Just when the community was MOST interested in seeing us online, we were unavailable.
Today, we're very prepared for large, perhaps even massive amounts of traffic. DM runs across a pair of separate Dell servers, both loaded with hardware and fully redundant. We were slammed by an ongoing DoDOS attack last year, but now have protection against that (as best we can anyway) due to our partnership with a well known CDN service.
15 years ago, I didn't have a clue what it took to run a website. But looking back, I'm proud of the independent, do-it-our-way approach I've chosen to take. I wracked up some debt in keeping things afloat, but it would have been significantly more had I just paid somebody to take care of it for me. I was a college student with no money back then, so it's wonderful to see that we somehow survived.
How closely do you work with team Jordan? How did you come to be noticed by them?
[Jason] I first came into contact with Robert Jordan when he sent me a Cease-and-Desist letter. Good times, eh?
At the time, I was attempting to make an animated short film based on the "Dragonmount" prologue from the first book. He got wind of it via an online interview where a fan asked him what his thoughts were. Well, his "thoughts" were to shut it down. His agent contacted me and I explained what I was up to. They understood, and RJ agreed to give me a license to produce the short film on the condition that he needed to approve the script, designs, etc. I remember asking the lawyer, "How will he approve the materials?" And the lawyer said, "Oh you can just work via email with him." That was pretty much one of the coolest things anybody had ever said to me. It was 2002.
My email exchanges with Robert Jordan began very formal. "Dear Mr Jordan…." We exchanged a few pleasantries, and I sent him a photo of my wife and I cutting our wedding cake with a heron-marked sword. (RJ: "I know some women who would rather cut YOU than the cake!") But mostly we talked about the movie project. He signed all of his emails with a big salutation, "Sincerely, I remain… Robert Jordan". Something like that.
Over time, we chatted a little more frequently, and talked about other topics. We talked about his writing, of course, or his upcoming book tours, the housing market, even the weather. I know, how cliche, right? He began signing his emails simply, "RJ", and then later, "Jim". (His real name was Jim Rigney if you were not aware.)
I never finished that film, but that was all right. It put me in direct contact with Robert Jordan, and from there we launched his blog on DM, and I received early copies of each of the new WoT books. He asked me what I thought of each one, and I'd tell him honestly. But he never sought my input or feedback on anything.
The first time I was ever asked for any real input was at his funeral. Harriet hosted a beautiful get-together at her house on the evening of his burial. She and Tom Doherty (the publisher of Tor Books) sat me down on their porch and asked me who I thought should finish the series. I mentioned a few names and gave feedback on the names they suggested. Nobody mentioned Brandon. I'm glad they didn't go with anybody else.
When Brandon wrote the final books, Jenn and I were both invited to be one of the beta readers. That's when we really began to work with Team Jordan from a creative standpoint.
What made you decide to begin hosting conventions? How easy was it? Do you enjoy it? Will you continue to do it?
[Jenn] I went to my first Dragon*Con in 2000. It was my first fan convention ever. I liked it and thought it might be fun to get a bunch of DMers to come. One thing went wrong after another and I ended up starting a new track of programming devoted entirely to the Wheel of Time. After a few years of that, people started pestering me about starting a standalone convention. I demurred for several years, because I thought my hands were pretty full, but apparently I'm a sucker for peer pressure.
It's tough to run a con. I've had to learn so many things I never thought I'd need, like running a business, managing volunteers and arguing with the IRS about our tax exempt status. I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it though. I love walking around the JordanCon and seeing the beautiful Art Show, intricate costumes and groups of friends chatting in the hallway and thinking 'Hey, I did this!" I've had lots and lots of help, obviously. But I love the community that has grown up around JordanCon and I feel like we're finally becoming known outside of the WoT fandom as a "must attend!" event.
What are some of your favorite memories of Dragonmount?
[Jason] I have so many. Running a website like Dragonmount for 15 years is like having a second job. It turned out to be one of the significant things I've done with my life so far. I've loved going to book signings and meeting people, going to conventions, going out to dinner with RJ and Harriet, playing Magic: the Gathering with Brandon, making the Towers of Midnight book trailer, and so on.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?
[Jenn] I'm 33, married, no kids. I teach at a small private school for kids with autism spectrum disorder. In my non-fannish spare time, I like to refinish old furniture and I have a food blog. I'm married to a Seanchan and we live just north of Atlanta in a small town where Sherman committed some of his worst war crimes. In addition to DM, I'm the 10th president of the Southern Fandom Confederation, the oldest still active fan organization in the southeast, and thus entitled to wear my Presidential tiara at all fannish events.
[Jason] I'm 35, married, with two little red-haired boys. My day job is with a major technology company where I work on enterprise-class Linux servers every day. (That's been very helpful for running Dragonmount!) In addition to family, DM, and work, I'm a writer and a filmmaker trying to complete that elusive first "big project." I work very hard every day at my craft, planning to someday have something professionally produced someday. I'm also a student of Choy Li Fut kung-fu, love cartography and writing haiku. I have a personal website at JasonDenzel.com, and am on twitter @JasonDenzel.
How did you meet?
[Jenn] We "met" when Jason was asking for applications to run the White Tower Organization at DM. I sent him a long email, in character as a loopy Brown sister who didn't quite have it together. Fun fact! It is not hard at all for me to act like that. We finally met in person when Jason and his wife came to Dragon*Con in 2003.
[Jason] Yeah, what she said.
On a day to day basis, just how much work do you have to put into running Dragonmount?
[Jenn] Right now for me it's very little. I check the staff boards every day to make sure no one is on fire, but that's about it. The last five years have been very intense for me as a Wheel of Time fan and I feel like I'm finally taking that vacation I promised myself a couple years ago. Jason does more, but he handles the business side of things and that requires constant tending.
[Jason] DM is never far from my mind. I'm always working on something related to the site, even if it's to process an order from our online store, answer questions on our social media, or tweet about a WoT-related link. It's hard for me to put an amount of time on it. Just like a parent doesn't track the hours they raise their kids, I don't track my time at DM. The website, servers, community, relationships, and effort that all go into it is a daily extension of myself.
How did Dragonmount begin? Who was involved?What motivated you to start Dragonmount?
[Jason] In 1998 I was a college student who was re-reading the series in anticipation of the next book coming out (Path of Daggers). They were, by far, my favorite books and I really had a hunger to speak to people about them. I knew a few other fans, but none of them were really into talking about theories or glossing about their favorite scenes and characters.
Around that time, I took a workshop in basic HTML. Since I couldn't find anybody to talk to about the books, I decided to try and make a website to attract fans and see if I could find some people to talk to. Well, I think I was successful!
My goal with the first 1.0 version of the website was just to put something online that was visually appealing. Of course it looks terrible by today's standards but you have to think about what it was like in 1998: most websites were just text and animated GIF's. And most Wheel of Time websites were just text back then. I wanted to feature art, and active message boards and foster community. It wasn't until many years later that I began enlisting the help of real designers and artists and web developers.
How would you like people to use the website? What would you like people to get out of the website?
[Jason] Dragonmount's #1 goal from day one has been to enhance a person's enjoyment of The Wheel of Time. We're here to keep you posted with news, provide commentary, resources, and community. I'd love if people met new friends on our forums, joined a writing group, or shared with artwork.
One of our newest features is our eBook store. Aside from being an opportunity to make a little money (and help pay off that debt I mentioned above and offset the costs of our servers!), I really believe in the DRM-free approach to selling books. I'm working hard to expand this, and hoping to one day add new publishers and titles. I hope visitors will check us out and consider buying some eBooks from us rather every now and then. You get multiple versions of the book, so you can read them on Kindle and any other device, and they are fully unlocked so you never have to worry about them expiring or not working in future platforms.
What do you see in the future of Dragonmount?
[Jenn] I think DM is always going to be a community hub for those who enjoy the Wheel of Time and other fantasy fiction. We have no plans to transition to being a Brandon Sanderson fan site.
[Jason] Dragonmount will have an active, thriving community for as long as the Wheel of Time books are in print, and even beyond that probably. These books are still published and selling well worldwide. That means every day there are new readers who are just as entranced by the story like we were. While there's no denying that things might slow down a little, we'll always be around and active.
Oh, and if they ever manage to make a movie or TV series based on the books, DM will be flooded with more traffic than we've ever seen. Even if the production tanks, there will be enough marketing interest that we'll see a large rush of new readers.
Now that the series has ended, what are you going to read?
[Jenn] I read lots of different authors. Off the top of my head, I've recently read things by Pat Rothfuss, Saladin Ahmed, Mary Robinette Kowal, Seanan McGuire, John Scalzi, Lois McMaster Bujold and N.K. Jemisin. They are all excellent authors and I recommend them.
[Jason] I read most of the same authors Jenn mentioned. But most of my reading these days is for unpublished or in-progress books. I read a lot of stuff for my writing group, and I often volunteer to beta read people's novels. Even though I've not been published (yet), I think I have a pretty good eye for character development, story, conflict, and the publishing industry in general. I enjoy helping other aspiring authors, especially those inspired by Robert Jordan. And of course, I read my own stuff, every day, over and over in order to try and make something I hope people will want to read someday.
What did you think of A Memory of Light? Which was your favorite book of the series? Which is your favorite character? Which is your favorite villain? If you existed in the Wheel of Time world who would you like to be and who would you most likely really have been?
[Jenn] That is too many questions. But yes, I did enjoy A Memory of Light. I think it was a worthy ending to the series. The last couple pages make me tear up every time I look at them.
[Jason] I loved A Memory of Light. But like the other beta readers, I saw it while it was still imperfect. I saw it, as Brandon likes to say, without its makeup and hair done while it's still in frumpy pajamas. But I thought it was a beautiful and poetic ending to the series, even though there were things that may perhaps could have been better if Robert Jordan had completed it personally. But I sincerely think that nobody would have put as much love and effort into it as Brandon did, and for that, I'll always be grateful.
My Favorite character: Rand
Who I wish I was or suspect I would be: I'd want to be the Rand we see at the end of the series.
What do you get out of running Dragonmount?
[Jenn] A sense of satisfaction and the occasional freebie from Tor. But mostly satisfaction.
[Jason] Pure joy. Fulfillment. The sense of following the course of my river of life.
Also, frequent annoyance when the damn servers act up.
Have you made any real, lasting friendships on Dragonmount?
[Jenn] I met my husband on the forums at DM. So yes, definitely. Other than Jimmy, I've met many wonderful people and had many long friendships with people I've met either at DM or at conventions.
[Jason] I met some of my closest life-long friends through this website, including Jenn. But don't tell her I said that. I want her to think I hate her.
Which social groups were you most heavily involved in? Can you tell us briefly about any role-playing characters you had on Dragonmount?
[Jenn] I ran the White Tower for ten years. To this day, I believe I'm still the longest serving Group Leader at DM.
[Jason] Thanks for taking the time to listen to our stories, and I hope we can have this conversation again in another five, ten, and fifteen years. Thank you also to everyone who's visited and contributed over the years to DM. A special shout out to the staff and admins, both current and past. You can never know how much it meant to me that you helped out. In many ways, this site will always be as much yours as it was mine.
Jason Denzel, Jason@dragonmount.com
I really hope you have enjoyed reading this interview with two people who have given of themselves so much so that we all in the world of Wheel of Time fandom may enjoy this incredible site. And I hope it inspires you to go on making use of it to the fullest and to stick around for many more years to come.
That's all for now. Have fun!
Until next time, friends!