Wednesday 26 December 2018

"The Knight is no Fool": An interview with Thaddeus White

While searching for more victims, Thaddeus White bravely volunteered. Probably that Yorkshire grit. As a long time fan of his work, I immediately accepted and here's the result...

PL: Where exactly did the idea for Sir Edric and Dog come from? I've always been curious as I could see lots of guys who look like Sir Edric in fiction, but was never sure which ones in particular you were inspired by.

TW: The idea for Sir Edric came after I wrote Bane of Souls. It's a story centred on a fictional city, with an array of characters (as you'd expect). Amongst them is a pompous chevalier, and a self-regarding and quite corrupt Captain of the Watch. Somewhat disconcertingly, I found it very easy to write a wealthy, selfish bounder of a man and, as such a man lends himself to comedy, I thought I'd give it a crack. When what became the opening to the first book went down well on SFF Chrons, that was a green light for me to continue.

Dog's a bit different. I wanted Sir Edric to have a sidekick but to avoid either a Blackadder/Baldrick approach (the servant being an imbecile) or the reverse, whereby the knight would be useless. Whilst Dog's utterly heroic and Sir Edric's motivated by self-preservation, the knight is no fool.

PL: Ah! Bane of Souls. We'll have to return to that later. But right now Sir Edric. The rough level of equality between the two is definitely unusual and I do like the dynamic it gives. Do you find there's a difference in writing character dynamics when writing straight-up comedy and when writing more serious books?

TW: Yes, although that's at least partly down to Sir Edric's stories being entirely from his perspective, whereas my 'serious' stories are multi-POV. That means everybody's defined by Sir Edric's relationship with them. There's also, often, a vast yawning chasm between his internal monologue and his actual words/deeds (which is something I think we can all relate to. When your boss gives you an impossible task or your girlfriend has ordered a salad but decides to steal half your chips, most men have a gulf between their thoughts and words).

The Sir Edric-Dog relationship is the key one. They're clearly not equals, but the relationship falls into a grey area between friendship and master-servant. Dog's heroic in almost every way, but his pathological loyalty to a man who absolutely doesn't deserve it makes a vice of a virtue.

PL: Personally, people who steal my chips find out what my fork is actually for... but enough of that. I have to say I've always found Dog's pathological loyalty to Sir Edric puzzling. Do you ever plan to reveal why, or is it one of those secrets that are better to keep? Are there any other of Sir Edric's relationships you find particularly fun to write? And what's your favourite character dynamic in Sir Edric and the Plague?

TW: Sir Edric and Corkwell are quite nice. He's obviously a womaniser, but having a dominatrix paramour introduces an element of control and danger if he strays too much. It also prevents her from being 'just another bedwarmer'.

In Plague, I liked Jasper a lot. He's a twelve foot golem, practically invincible, but has the mind of a small boy (he's only four). Sir Edric and his other companions are more sophisticated but Jasper's uncomplicated and affable, and the contrast works well. 

As for Sir Edric and Dog, that's going to remain a secret. Probably.

PL: Ah, I was hoping you'd mention Jasper. He was a definite highlight of the book for me. You use a very wide Fantasy palate when it comes to Sir Edric if that makes sense - is that deliberate? Or just one of those things where if you think it'll be fun you throw it in?

TW: In terms of both drawing on different areas of fantasy and comedy, that's something I try to do. There are plenty of monsters from Greek myths used (and the elves use mostly Greek-ish names), but there are odd references to classics like Lord of the Rings and the Eagle Question. I think it works because Sir Edric's a cynical realist, so the fantastical nature of elves and magic often founders on the rock of his (fairly) down-to-earth perspective (hence mocking them as wand-fondlers). Varying the comedy often comes from changing who Sir Edric encounters, from the enthusiastic but naive, to violent man-eaters (like Orff No-Balsac). Variety helps keep things fresh.

Speaking of fresh, here is Sir Edric himself with a large amount of foliage

PL: Speaking of variety keeping things fresh - lets go back to Bane of Souls (my first and favourite of your books) and your other more dramatic books, such as Kingdom Asunder. What about writing those stories scratches the itches that Sir Edric can't?

TW: I like comedy a lot, but it has a necessary comic strain running throughout. A comedy that doesn't make you like or smile doesn't work. 'Serious' books can have more emotional highs and lows, differing moods, and can retain occasional comedy (in Kingdom Asunder I like James' flowery repartee, and in Bane of Souls think Roger, and Rufus' commentary on the challenge of trousers, quite amusing). It's especially difficult trying to mingle comedy and sorrow, as they're such diametrically opposing emotions, expressing levity and gravity.

PL: Are there any further plans for more of these non Sir Edric books?

TW: Well, I need to finish off The Bloody Crown Trilogy, so there's definitely that. Sometimes I toy with the idea of a plague aftermath story or something similar. I like Sir Edric and Dog a lot, but other styles of writing too so (final part of the trilogy aside) it's likely I'll keep writing 'serious' stuff, although I don't have any specific plans at the moment.

PL: How do you go about writing your books anyway, to change topics? Are you a planner or a discovery writer?

TW: Generally, I plan the whole story fairly closely but leave (for comedy) some play in the chapters to add or remove things, or alter them, based on how things are going. I think planning's useful scaffolding for keeping things pointing in the right direction, to mix metaphors horribly, but sometimes things work a lot better or worse than expected. When that happens, it's daft to be chained to a plan.

PL: And is this how you've always wrote? Or has your process changed as you've finished more books?

To paraphrase AC-DC, dirty deeds at a dirt cheap price

It varies quite a bit. For serious stuff, particularly with Bane of Souls (which is the first I wrote set in the same world as Journey to Altmortis and The Bloody Crown Trilogy) I did a lot of world-building before I even started writing, because I wanted to keep the world consistent and cohesive. For Sir Edric's assorted shenanigans, I had certain ideas in mind (him loathing elves, and the Ursk [nine foot tall slavers who see humans as a sort of edible currency]) but I mostly fill in the details as I go along.

With the earliest Sir Edric stories I'd make up 95% as I went along. That's huge fun but can also make it slow going when things get bogged down. Because of that, I plan a little more now to help stop slowdowns (worked well for the latest work-in-progress. Excepting the first two, each chapter only took an average of three days or so). Experience is also helpful because redrafting and editing means you sometimes spot future problems at the drafting stage, saving pain down the line (same as for most activities, you stop making rookie errors when you're not a rookie any more).

PL: Ah yes. Poor elves. I've always wondered whether that was just you finding it amusing or you disliking elves. Are there any fantasy tropes you particularly dislike?

TW: Hmm. Whilst I'm not fond of elf-worship (there can be a tendency to portray them as wiser/more in tune with nature/fairer than humans) I don't dislike them as Sir Edric does. Took me a while to think of a trope I dislike, but the end of the Lord of the Rings, which exemplifies the fodder race trope, does irk me a bit. Inherent pure evil or goodness, even in high fantasy, seems quite incredible. Couldn't an orc make a decent mercenary? Or guard? Or blacksmith?

PL: No such thing as a decent guard. Anyway - are there any fantasy tropes you'd like to see more of?

TW: Not necessarily a trope, but I do enjoy morally ambiguous characters. The uncertainty means you can't predict the plot as easily, and also gives a character a greater range of actions because they're not pigeon-holed into good or evil. (Sir Edric's not a villain or a hero. Amidst the comedy, he does do quite a number of dubious things, and it's nice being able to have him just smack someone on the back of the head if it makes sense for his desired self-preservation).

PL: Finally - my standard question - what's the best and worst pieces of writing advice you've been given?

TW: Not sure I listen to advice enough to give a good answer to that. Mind you, at school an English teacher advised that writers overuse 'said' and other dialogue tags (declaim, shout, protest etc) should be used. That's rubbish advice. 'Said' is one of those words that becomes almost invisible, and countless pointless variations can just look like the writer swallowed a thesaurus (obviously, sometimes other tags are needed, but mostly not). The best advice, and I can't remember who gave it, alas, was that the first draft is like telling yourself the story. It doesn't need to be perfect or anywhere near perfect. Like scaffolding on a construction site, as long as it gives you the skeleton of the story you can change the rest in redrafting. Don't stress about a first draft being a bit rubbish (recently wrote a blog about this for Kraxon, incidentally. Ch4 of The Adventures of Sir Edric was a mess at first, but thorough redrafting made it perhaps my favourite in the whole story).

Thanks to Thaddeus for taking the time to answer my questions. If you want to learn more about his books, visit his blog here or go to his Amazon author page to buy them.

Saturday 8 December 2018

Weekend Five: What I've been reading

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Thanks to the magic of kindle sales, I finally caught up with one of the big "Everyone's read it" fantasy releases of recent times. I kinda wish I hadn't heard all that hype as maybe that warped my expectations. In any case, after the opening pages I was expecting a dramatic and gritty adventure against desperate odds. What I actually got was a Eddings-esque romp in which invincible heroes and deus ex machina removed pretty much any sense of drama and desperation. A lot of fun and a cool idea, but that expectations thing disappointed me.

A Warning by Kit Power

Thanks to the magic of publicly begging, I also get to catch up with this. Its a short story anthology built around an Invisibles-esque framing device of a future malcontent accessing memories of a history no longer known about. There's a good story to be made out of that alone, but fun in this collection lies in Power's ability to capture the essence of a very wide variety of human reactions. Very highly recommended for short story enthusiasts.

Horse's Arse by Charlie Owen

Yes, this is the set of mini-reviews in which I admit to reading non-fantasy. Horse's Arse is the tale of a fictional group of cops set in the 70s, back when villains were villains and the cops were also villains. Just on the right side. Well. I say fictional but they're probably not all that fictional, which is basically fucking terrifying. That aside though, the book is scatologically hilarious and a great view into a vanished world. The plotting isn't fantastic but the individual scenes are.

Waylander by David Gemmell

Seemingly every time I write about Gemmell here, it is non-stop marveling at how effortlessly he melds simple action stories with shrewd insight into the human condition. So it is again. There's times when Waylander feels a tad corny, a tad convenient; you can tell tis an earlier book. But the sub-arc with Karnak in particular is wonderful, and the whole thing is an absorbing read that sticks in the memory.

The Poppy War by RF Kuang

I didn't actually realise this book was a big deal when I picked it up on kindle sale. I promoted it to the top of the list after MD Presley told me he'd been jarred by the contrast by magic school and sadistic war. He's not wrong about it begin jarring. There were many times I considered DNFing the book. But many passages of the book are also extremely good. I'll probably do a full review of this some time, somewhere, once I've sorted out how I feel about it. But for now, I'd recommend everyone at least have a peek at what this book is about and think about whether its worth a shot for them.

Tuesday 4 December 2018

"Fantasy does immersion best": An Interview with Daniel E. Olesen

After reading Daniel E. Olesen's debut, The Eagle's Flight, I had a lot of questions for the guy. When I found out he was releasing a new book, it seemed the ideal opportunity. Fortunately Daniel was in an obliging mood...

PL: Congrats on the new book release! But before you tell the nice people about the new book, I have to ask about your first book, The Eagle's Flight. Its is one of the densest and most detail driven fantasy books I've ever read. Like, Wheel of Time but with more medieval realism. What was behind the decision to go that route?

DEO: For me, fantasy rests on three pillars. Characters, plot, and world-building, in that hierarchy too. The first two are obviously integral to any good story in any genre, but fantasy like nothing else can really get the reader immersed. I believe that's the secret behind the biggest successes of the genre - the reader can vividly imagine living in this world. For me, getting into all those little details, scrounging them out of history and using them as suits me, was my method to make my world as immersive as possible.

PL: Did you do a lot of research to get those details? And have you taken that approach forwards into Prince of Cats?

DEO: Very much, yes. I've always been reading history books as I'm that kind of nerd, especially after I knew I wanted to build my own world. Now, when I have something specific to work out, I usually seek out articles that might cover the topic. Same goes for The Prince of Cats, yes. As prepatory research, I read 5 books on the history and architecture of Moorish Spain/Andalucia to get the culture and cityscape of Alcázar right, and I consulted with an Arab reader for all my uses of Classical Arabic sprinkled across the story.

PL: Nice. Moorish Spain is definitely something that deserves more love from authors, so I'm excited to read this book now - as if I wasn't excited to read a book called Prince of Cats anyway. Has it been a change of pace writing about thieves instead of politicking nobles, or much the same?

DEO: A very big change! I intentionally wrote this as an entirely different kind of story in every way; in part to entice new readers, in part because I needed a change of (writing) pace. The setting is the only thing my books have in common. And I did have enormous fun allowing myself to write from Jawad's perspective, his observations, his inability to keep his mouth shut, not to mention how much easier it is to write a book with a small cast and singular plot!

PL: I'm not surprised. I'm still slightly stunned that you chose a behemoth like that for your first book. Or was it? How long were you writing prior to getting The Eagle's Flight out there?

DEO: I started writing a bit in my teens, and I tried my hand at a novel when I was 19. It was atrocious, and I deleted the whole thing, starting over. About a year later, I realised I was not at all skilled for this. I spent my twenties studying literature at university and practising on short stories until at age 29, I used the few useful bits of my first attempts to make a third attempt. So admittedly, it may not have been wise to go for such a beastly tome as my debut novel, but it was the story that had been knocking around in my head for a decade, and I had to get it out.

PL: Where did the story come from originally? Is there any particular moment of inspiration you can remember? Or was it an idea that built up slowly?

DEO: It was very much the latter. I can barely remember when I first started thinking about this story, except a vague notion of a city between mountain peaks and a civil war between noble houses with a few notable, minor players. The very original version had those bones along with characters like Godfrey, Brand, Arndis, and Theodoric, which is what I salvaged. Everything else has slowly arrived over time, usually as I read or watched something, whether fiction or non-fiction, that I wanted to add to my world and story.

PL: Did you have the same process of creation for Prince of Cats? Or was it different, what with having done so much world building and writing prior?

DEO: I guess the process was much the same. I still needed to do a lot of research into fleshing out this part of the setting and make sure I got all the details right. With both books, I started with a rough idea of where the story started, what major beats it should go through, and where it should end. I usually only outline a few chapters in advance when I write, so I don't get 'locked' in, writing the plot in a direction that turns out to be forced. So I only outline based on where I am in the story right now, and what it makes most sense to happen next. In that sense, the only difference between my process for my two books was that each of these outlining steps was a lot easier for The Prince of Cats, because the cast and plot was much simpler.

A tenner says he's thinking "I can see your house from here"

PL: So you're outline a bit/write a bit over and over? You ever tried outlining everything or nothing?

DEO: Yes, exactly. I've never tried either of those approaches. I think outlining everything would feel much too constricting for me, but perhaps writing without outlining anything would be a worthwhile experiment one day!

PL: At some point you and Matt should argue it out on that approach vs outlining everything - its the only way to make Critical Hits even nerdier! But to go back to the creation process - were there any major beats in Prince of Cats you were really excited to write?

DEO: I'll let him know! And yes, definitely. About two thirds through, Jawad reaches a breaking point, running through a burning city, where he feels everything unravelling and the full ramifications of his own actions hit him - I think that was the best characterisation work I've done in this book. And then last 10 pages, where all the strands of the plot come together, all the character interactions reach their climax, that was extremely satisfying to write.

PL: I look forwards to reading that part then! And weird random question that just popped into my head - if you could get Matt to cook you any fantasy animal, what would you want to eat?

DEO: I did not see this question coming. Let's go with a chimera - there's got to be at least one part of it that tastes good!

PL: I'm trying to mix up my ratio of absurd oddball questions to deep probing ones :D back to the deep probing (i like it because it sounds wrong) - would you say there's any authors you particularly admire for their ability to provide characterisation? Or any particular types of characters you love to write about?

DEO: The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the book I've read most often, in part because I find Edmond Dantes to be perhaps the most interesting character I've ever come across in fiction. Myself, I like to write intelligent characters caught in situations out of their depth - forcing them (and thereby me) to use their quick wits to somehow resolve their conflicts. Having them fail is also a wonderful excuse to delve into their mental state and how they handle failure.

PL: That segues quite nicely into the next question I had in mind actually. I presume that as someone who's studied literature, you've read a lot of not-fantasy. Do you think that's shaped your approach to the genre compared to people who read less outside the genre?

DEO: I imagine so, though I am speculating a little here. If there is a difference, I think it's that I am less interested in the supernatural for the supernatural's sake. For me, fantasy is an excuse to design a world entirely to my preference, so I can tell exactly the story I want. I only include the supernatural sparingly and with a very specific purpose: usually to create a character or plot situation that could otherwise not exist. I guess I'm trying to take the best of other genres and plant it in a fantasy world, and see what I can harvest from that.

PL: *steeples fingers evil mastermind style* And what best of other genres have you been planting in your own fantasy garden?

DEO: From horror short stories, such as Poe's, I have stolen tension; specifically, leaving the reader uncertain on what is true and what is imagined, especially concerning the supernatural. From epic poems, such as the Iliad or Paradise Lost, I've ribbed language and how to use an archaic tone that's still readable. From historical novels, I've taken realism even in small details to make the past (or another world) seem vivid and believable. From modernistic novels, I learned to be sparse with details concerning my characters, and instead write to let the reader connect the dots and form their own conclusions. And postmodernism taught me to be mindful of my narrators as I write them, and that they always tell the story with an agenda in mind.

Its like a doom metal version of A Song of Ice and Fire

PL: And that right there is the glory of the hybrid. Do you think there's any particular part of storytelling that the fantasy genre provides better than others?

DEO: I think fantasy does immersion best of all genres. Nothing else will activate the imagination to such a degree and transport you into the story so vividly. I think this also allows fantasy to offer some of the most sublime reading experiences, where you truly feel as the characters feel. Those are my goals with each story I write - get the reader as immersed as possible and give them situations with emotional intensity, as real to the reader as those moments are to the characters.

PL: Hmm. I will think about that answer and one day argue with you about it. But for now - how do you think having studied literature has shaped your approach to writing? Do you find there to be any particular difference in focus between the writers you know from your studies and the writers you know from elsewhere?

DEO: I think my studies has helped point out all sorts of ideas or aspects of literature that I would otherwise never have noticed. So I probably approach writing with a much more theoretical footing. For instance, Lessing's theory of Leerstellen (empty spaces), leaving gaps in the reader's knowledge to force them to draw their own conclusions, is exactly how I like to write. I wouldn't say there is a difference in focus maybe, but definitely in whether literature is considered a form of (aesthetic) philosophy or a craft.

PL: So you'd definitely do it again?

DEO: Without a doubt. It exposed me to so many theories and thoughts, as well as literature from all over the world that I'd never have picked up on my own.

PL: Gimme another cool theory that I'v probably never heard of!

DEO: Sure! Gadamer gave us the idea of horizons melting together (if it sounds odd, I'm translating from German into English, and neither is my native tongue). His thought was that any text was written in a given age, in a given society, by an author influenced by a host of factors. The reading of any text happens in another age, another society, by a reader influenced by a host of other factors. The text and the reading have their own 'horizons', and the interpretation is where those horizons melt together, as we try to reconcile our understanding of the text with how it was originally written. His point was that we could never understand the original intent of a text due to the differences between author and reader; at best, we can approach it.

PL: I'm not sure I understand the original intent of half the stuff I write either tbh. Okay - I feel like I've heard a lot of the best writing advice you've been given - what's the worst?

DEO: One that always sticks out to me is 'Readers like to be spoonfed', which is basically the opposite idea of Leerstellen, so naturally I am against that. Otherwise, any advice that claims to be a rule. There are always exceptions when going against conventional wisdom in writing will make sense. But I do encourage to follow the advice when you have no reason to discard it - it's conventional wisdom for a reason. So break the rules by all means, but only if you know what you're doing!

PL: Okay. I want to keep asking questions but there comes a point where I have to respect my readers' desires to read an interview and not a novella, so I'm going to go with one last question - if you fell through a portal into a fantasy world, what would you want your story to be?

DEO: I want to be a skald or bard. Find myself a patron, earn my keep by making some nice verses when the need calls for it, and generally live a relaxed life without manual labour or other expectations upon me.

A big thanks to Daniel for his time, even if his last answer there is sheer cowardice! The Prince of Cats is out now and you can find more details about it and Daniel's other books at his website, the Annals of Adal