Welcome to our special interview with Nadia Odunayo! Nadia is the founder of The StoryGraph, an online service that helps you find books to fit your mood. After you read the interview, head over to The StoryGraph to sign up and find your next read!
What is The StoryGraph and what does it do for readers?
The StoryGraph is a website that helps you to find perfect books for you based on your mood and the types of books you like to read.
Our magic feature is “Ordered for you.” Users fill out a short survey — it takes anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes to fill out — letting us know their favourite sorts of books to read, down to specific topics, types of authors, themes, genres etc. — and we order all of the books on our website for them based on how well they match their preferences.
Combine that with our filter menu, where you can filter down by moods, pace, genres, book size, and more, and you’re never more than a few clicks away from your next perfect book!
Can you tell us what sparked the idea and how The StoryGraph has evolved since you founded the site?
The StoryGraph started life as a side project to create and share personal reading lists on anything you wanted.
However, when I started showing early demos to people, I realised that it didn’t solve the biggest needs for readers: better tracking tools and having one place to consistently find great book recommendations.
That’s when I started to pivot the product towards what it is today!
How do you categorize books? Why moods?
Moods are the main ways to characterise books on The StoryGraph because when I was researching how users discovered new books to read, they often spoke about books they loved in relation to how it made them feel and wanting to find books that made them feel a similar way. And yet — there was nowhere to plug in those feelings and see what came out the other end. Until now!
What are the main moods on your StoryGraph profile?
“Challenging” can be, well…challenging! Sometimes it can be because a book’s writing is dense or complicated, or because it can make you think hard about your beliefs, and then both of those things are incredibly dependent on who the reader is — what is complicated to someone else might be easily digestible to another. Then again, all of the moods are subjective — we try to find the labels for each book that the vast majority of readers would agree on! If readers disagree, they can express that in their reviews, and eventually we’ll use data from our community reviews to update the mood tags on each book.
Are there additional moods that you are hoping to add in the future?
Before building the beta site, I did a lot of research with the books community on Instagram to come up with the initial list of fourteen moods. The goal was: can we produce a relatively short list that covers every book?
So far it looks like this list is really working out, and if we don’t have to adapt the list then that would be great. That’s not to say a new mood won’t emerge in the future. But rather than us actively seeking to add one, I think the need for it will become obvious at some point based on people struggling to classify a certain group of books.
What features are you most excited to add to The StoryGraph?
I’m really looking forward to adding support for trigger/content warnings.
Books with sensitive content will be flagged on the site. On top of that, users will be able to specify which content they’re sensitive to in their “Ordered for you” preferences and books matching that content will be hidden away from those users.
It’s going to be a tricky problem to solve though, but I’m up for the challenge!
Finally, where can we find The StoryGraph on social platforms?
Nathalie Gribinski’s In the Mist of Fire places her artistry centerstage, where her elegant mix of prosaic poetry and vibrantly abstract characters bring vividly imagined worlds to life. Her debut book is a winner, packed with powerful messages and captivating visuals that make it equal parts fun and thought-provoking. Nathalie was kind enough to speak with The Quill To Live about her writing process, her relationship with her art, and more.
First off, can you tell us about yourself and how you became an artist?
People call me Nana. I grew up in Paris, where I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Science. I moved to Chicago to study graphic art. After a year of study, I immersed myself in painting, where I feel most at home with my art.
For a year, I concentrated on illustrations, so I decided to collect them into a published work alongside original poetry. In the Mist of Fire is the culmination of my stories and my art, and it represents my growth as an artist. Since my early days of writing poetry and drawing, I’ve grown so much, and I think the book shows that evolution in my work.
I have a cat/roommate named Zoé. The book includes a poem and illustration inspired by her.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
I wanted to stay a child—I loved the wonder and exploration of being a kid. But sometimes I asked myself questions about the future. I didn’t know much about what I wanted to be, because I was focused on the present. I did have a passion for justice, so I ended up studying law. The work was interesting, but not fulfilling. So when I moved across the world and immersed myself into a new culture and community, I viewed it as an opportunity to rebuild myself into a new person—one I’d always wanted to be. It opened up new creative avenues for me and led me to pursue my art full-time.
In the Mist of Fire effortlessly combines written stories with beautiful artwork—can you talk about the relationship between your art and writing in the book?
This is my first book and I wanted to take a closer look at my illustrations, understand them better, and give them a voice. My illustrations are usually abstract works, so I tried to emulate that mood in the stories.
How would you describe In the Mist of Fire to someone who’s never read it?
On its surface, the book is a collection of art and poetry. Dive deeper, and it’s an invitation to open up the imagination and take a moment to enjoy the abstract. It’s an escape from the mundane into the vibrant and beautiful worlds we create in our minds.
Do the stories come first, or the visuals?
In this first book, the illustrations come first. I wrote the stories according to the illustrations. I’m an artist to my core, so my creative muse is almost always visual.
Circles in the Wind
Which other pieces, books, or works of art have impacted you on your artistic journey?
The Little Prince has been always an inspiration. I like the naïve feeling it represents. The lessons of life, the light illustrations. Artistically, I have been influenced by Van Gogh; his colorful expressions of sorrow and suffering translatebeautifully onto canvas. He stayed true to himself until the end of his life, and though his story is a sad one, he left behind stunningly gorgeous and meaningful works.
He captivates me by his ability to express so much suffering and translate them into beautiful colorful paintings full of life. And especially because he stayed himself until the end of his life. He was looking for the truth.
What inspires you, and what motivates you to constantly create?
It is a necessity, a way of life. I am inspired by beauty, music, love, suffering, friendship, warm feelings, storms, and Zoé, my cat. What motivates me is the end result. I like to see a finished piece coming to life, and I love to share my work with others. I create to feel complete.
Many of your stories have lessons or positive messages, but there are also hints of darkness, such as in Swan of Hell. How do you balance the light and the dark?
The light and the dark are naturally balanced in myself. I have heard some critics say that any? art that there shows a lot of joy but also a lot of suffering. I cannot understand actually how it could be different. We are all exposed to the edges of despair and the edges of happiness. I like contrasts, tension, and after all, light and dark are the truths of life.
I mention Swan of Hell specifically because it’s my favorite—do you have a favorite piece from this collection? Why does it stand out to you?
Regarding the writings, I fluctuate between two very different stories:
I like The Strange Animal Fair because it’s a short text where you can vividly visualize the scene. It’s humorous and sometimes sarcastic; it’s a story that shines.
But I also appreciate the poetry, the dynamism and the dreamy atmosphere of The Eyes of the Casino.
Regarding the illustrations, my favorite is The Eyes of the Casino.
It’s the closest reflection of the story, emboldened by a sense of movement. It is colorful, anchored by red, which is my favorite color. I find this illustration very complete.
What’s next on your artistic agenda? Any new projects on the horizon?
I’m developing a project with a poet where this time he writes poetry and I illustrate it. I’m intrigued by the concept because it’s a reversal of my process for In the Mist of Fire, where the illustrations came first.
I am also seriously returning to painting, having a solo exhibit in Chicago March 22 to March 31 at the Palette and Chisel Gallery, 1012 North Dearborn. The opening is March 22 from 6 pm to 10 pm.
We have been all about Adrian Tchaikovsky recently. If you missed our recent reviews of Redemption’s Blade, which can be be found here, or Children of Time, which can be found here, you should check them out. Both of these books are worth your time and Adrian has about 20 others you can check out. We wanted to find out more about Adrian to better understand how he makes such great stuff, and managed to get a hold of him to ask some questions. For your reading pleasure we have written them up and added them below, enjoy:
You are a really prolific author with multiple series in both the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Do you have a preference for a genre and do you think there are any major differences in writing for one vs. the other? If so, what are those differences?
Fantasy and SF are very different writing experiences for me. With SF I generally want to make the science as sound as possible, and so it’s often a slower process involving lots of research and consultation with people better informed than I am. With fantasy, as the pressure is for internal consistency rather than external, the writing process can be a lot freer.
In addition, do you have a favorite series among the many that you have written?
I think the Shadows of the Apt world is still my favourite to dabble in, just because I know it so well.
What are some of your favorite sci-fi and fantasy books? What are you reading right now?
I am just finishing off Jeff Noon’s The Body Library, which is something of a mind-bending read. Before that was the wonderfully poetic and brutal Tower of Living and Dying by Anne Smith-Sparkes. Amongst my other favourites are Mary Gentle’s Ash and Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of Arete.
What is one fact about yourself that your readers would be surprised to know?
I still (as of this moment at least) have a day job, albeit a part time one.
Redemption’s Blade is a tragic tale about… well… redemption (unsurprisingly). What made you want to tell a story about the after affects of a war? Do you think this kind of story is something that the fantasy genre is missing – or were you feeling particularly passionate about this specific war?
The post-war setup was in the brief I received from Rebellion, so the credit is theirs for that. It’s certainly not the first time the topic has been touched, but stories about martial triumph are commonplace enough that it seems there’s more unexplored space if you pick up a narrative after the dust settles.
I noticed that the sequel to Redemption’s Blade, Salvation’s Fire, just came out and was written by Justina Robson. What is going on with the writing? Is it a joint project and will you be writing in this world more? How many novels are planned?
The series is envisaged as multi-author, and Justina had the unenviable task of picking up my toys when I’d finished using them. As for the future, that’s in Rebellion’s hands, but I’d certainly like to see more of the world.
Following up on the last question, the world of Redemption is incredible. The original races, power, and locations that you explored in the book really captured my imagination. Did you have any particular inspiration for the various races (or the torments visited on them, which were equally creative in a different sadder way)? Was the world build collectively with other authors?
I got a very loose brief, and then a very free hand, and in fact the sheer untrammelled creation I got to put into the project made writing it an absolute joy. I wanted to set up a complex world with a lot of areas left to be explored, a lot of hints and hooks for writers who might come after me. In that, it was a lot like setting up a campaign for a role-playing game – you need room to expand into.
There was a lot to like in Redemption’s Blade, but I particularly loved the ideas of the guardians – demigods sent to watch over life in the world. In many ways, the novel feels like it really revolves around them and their choices. What was your inspiration for these divine characters?
They were part of the brief, so again a tip of the hat to Rebellion. My own touch came mostly in the way that the guardians had already become mostly surplus to requirements before the war broke out – living alongside mortals meant that they were learning as much as they taught, including self interest.
I also really enjoyed the magical artifacts that litter the world in Redemption’s Blade. Were there any artifacts (or species of people) that you came up with that didn’t quite make it into the book?
Because of the nature of the project I got to shoehorn in a lot of things that I didn’t need to explore, just to flesh out the world. There were a few things I’d like to have played more with, though – there’s a bronze army mentioned early on, that apparently wasn’t much use against the Kinslayer and his legions, and one wonders what might be left over of *that* and precisely what it thinks about things.
What was your favorite thing to write in Children of Time? Was there a particular evolution you liked most?
I think the big war between the spiders and the ants was fun, and also the stealing of the sacred eye of the ant god, because it let me do something I love to read – writing hard SF in the style of epic fantasy (like Gene Wolfe does so well, or M John Harrison). Also, it’s nice to write a genuine heroic narrative where the protagonist is a spider.
How did you land on spiders as the species the humans would face?
It happened the other way round. I came across Portia labiata in my researches and knew that I needed to find a way of writing a book about them. The humans came later.
Children of Time has a lot of tangible themes that rarely get the treatment you gave them (such as evolution and the passage of time). What inspired you to write the book in the way that you did?
The focus of the book was always the evolutionary process, so the narrative would always be a longitudinal one. I wanted to show just how the society might change and adapt through the generations.
I was very impressed with your ability to control tone through the book, going from wonder to anxiety to horror fairly quickly without dissonance. How did you manage the tone in your head, while also making sure it translated to the page?
I think Children of Time is now pretty much the benchmark for my style now – Serious Narrative with a bit of nastiness sugar coated with a big of humour. I have never been a strictly technical writer, and the writing comes out as it comes out – the evolution of my style is an entirely subconscious process.
I just recently found out that there will be a sequel, Children of Ruin. While I felt CoT worked amazingly as a standalone, I’m incredibly excited about the sequel. What to you felt unfinished about Children of Time that led to Children of Ruin?
Well there’s that last sequence, the epilogue, where they’re setting off on a voyage of discovery. Children of Ruin is the story of What They Find There, and as the title suggests it’s not necessarily pretty.
How much research went into creating the insect led ecosystem upon the planet?
Well, to a certain extent it’s an extrapolation of Earth ecosystems, so there was a lot less work than trying to create a genuine alien world from first principles. The major work was the logistics of increasing arthropod size, and in how spider senses might work, in which I was ably assisted by the entomology department at the Natural History Museum.
-Thank you for your time Adrian, and everyone should check out one of his various books as soon as possible!
Last week was the general release of Robert Jackson Bennett’s new book, Foundryside, which we really enjoyed (and you can find the review here). It is an exciting new world with a number of mysteries that we wanted to know more about. Our group had a number of questions coming out of the book that Bennett was gracious enough to answer on both events in Foundryside and the future of the series. These questions do have mild spoilers for the first book, so I would recommend checking it out after you have read it. For those of you who have already finished this great read, enjoy:
I have had a love of houses with different creeds dating back to when I read Harry Potter as a child, so I was a big fan of the different houses in Foundryside. I had a bit of a specific question for you, how does one apply to enter one of the existing houses? How does a house go about recruiting new people? Are most employees born into their houses, or poached from others, or do you have any ideas for what a house interview process would be like?
This isn’t spelled out in the story, but if I were to imagine how it’d work…
So, probably about forty or fifty years before the story, when there were twenty, thirty, or a hundred merchant houses, they probably had an apprentice education system and scriving academies that anyone could go to, and if you went through the process and either passed an entrance exam or knew the right people, you could get hired by one of those houses.
However, in the decades since, four houses have completely consolidated nearly all power. So if you didn’t get in before or during the consolidation period, it’s a lot, lot harder to get into the merchant houses now. Now scriving is probably much more hereditary and nepotistic, where a spectrum of families within the four houses have cemented their positions and are trying to get their relations seeded all throughout the house’s structures. Each merchant house likely has not just one school but many schools within the campo, and getting into any of the schools probably requires a great deal of royal intrigue, favor jockeying, blackmail, and bribery. If you want your son to be a scriver (another thing they decided during the consolidation period is that scriving is a masculine art), and you’re external to Tevanne, you probably have to buy their way in. It is, in other words, not a meritocracy by any means.
The end result is that the merchant houses aren’t innovating nearly as much as they used to anymore, but they still wield unchallenged power, because the entry barrier to scriving is just way, way too high.
Scriving seems like an interesting profession. To me, if felt kind of like crossing a jeweler and a lawyer, needing the delicate hands and mind for rules. If scriving was suddenly real, what professions in the real world do you think would have the most applicable skills to make a career change into making magical artifacts?
Coding. When I was first sketching out the story in my mind, I settled on the thesis that magic is basically just a hack for reality – you are feeding reality instructions that makes it break the rules for you. Functionally speaking, scriving is a hack that makes objects disobey physics in select ways.
I noticed that there was a particular emphasis on scrivings based on gravity in the book, both good and bad. It resulted in some particularly spectacular and gruesome scenes that have really stuck with me. What made you think: gravity, this is the force I want to focus on?
Gravity is not very well understood today – where it came from, how it works, and so on. There’s an ongoing discussion about its nature, starting with general relativity, then dipping into string theory, quantum mechanics, and so on. As such, the idea of tampering with something immensely powerful but not well understood worked brilliantly with Foundryside.
Foundryside was a really fantastic book with a distinctly Venetian feel (a favorite location of inspiration for me). Are there any other cities you feel particularly drawn too that you have considered for inspiration for future books?
I will say that Haiti is an inspiration for an upcoming setting in the series. Historically more than geographically. It is the only successful large scale slave rebellion in human history.
Ophelia felt like a very hard-edged character verging on the edge of evil in this book. However, I might be extrapolating my impressions of her because she didn’t get a ton of screen time. Will we get to see her more of her in future books? If so, in what spoiler free context?
Ofelia Dandolo is going to figure very, very prominently in the next book. She is a hard-edged person, but it would be difficult not to be when you’re running a merchant house in the ruthless and cutthroat city of Tevanne. She’s always been devoted to protecting her family at all costs, which has led her to make some hard and desperate choices she’s still paying for.
The Mountain itself was one of the most interesting ‘characters’ in the book. It seemed to embody similar characteristics to where we currently are in developing Artificial Intelligence in the modern age. My question is, why did it still seem fairly ‘nice’ after watching and learning from generations of humans? Why wasn’t it pursuing power or love or any of the other things it has likely witnessed in it’s great walls? Also, please tell me it will return in the sequels!
Was the Mountain nice? I’m not sure. It was primarily created to attract a very specific sort of entity to Tevanne, but as far as it’s aware, those entities have not appeared. So I think it’s really more lonely and desperate than it is nice or cruel. It is its ongoing failure to fulfill its purpose that defines its attitude, as opposed to what it’s learned from human beings, since it’s still a fairly rudimentary intelligence.
I think it will likely make an appearance in the next book. There’s rather a lot happening in it, though.
The city in Foundryside seems to be a location in the Golden Age of scriving. How much scriving is actually taking place outside the city walls? Is it more of a traditional world out there? Why are there not more merchants coming to buy scrived tech in this city?
Tevanne’s primary industry is manufacturing scrived weapons and smaller lexicons – like combat lexicons – which it then either uses to capture territory, or sells to warlords to help them capture territory (it then taxes the everliving shit out of the warlords, and if they don’t pay up, they annihilate them with their superior scrived weaponry). There are tons and tons of diplomats in Tevanne trying to place contracts for rigs and lexicons, mostly for horrible purposes. There is no other scriving innovation taking place outside of Tevanne, because it’s expensive and hard to do, and it’s not in Tevanne’s interests to make it any easier. They want everyone coming to them.
Your books are often filled with imaginative inventions and creatures. Was there any idea or scriving type in Foundryside that you were particularly proud of?
What Orso comes up with in the climax is probably my favorite innovation, though it is very, very mind-bendy.
One of my favorite aspects of Foundryside as a story is the unlikely team up from people in so many different walks of life (the orphan, the prince, the sheltered genius, etc.). Was this an intentional combination on your part? What was the inspiration for drawing together such different people?
Yes. I’m a big sucker for the “ragtag group of misfits comes together to hatch a cunning plan” plot. I also like it when everyone yells and argues a lot, so making them all very different is critical to that.
Do you have any mock drawings of what scrivings would look like?
No. Scrivings convey an insane amount of information in each sigil and, to be frank, I don’t think I’m smart enough to be a scriver.
Correct me if I am wrong, but you mentioned in an earlier conversation we had that the main POVs of book two in The Founders would be different. Looking back at your past work with the Divine Cities as well, you don’t seem to like to stay in the head of a character for more than one book. Is there a particular reason or ethos for this?
I will say that Foundryside was very much Sancia’s book, but the sequel will be an ensemble story as the ragtag group of misfits tries to run the equivalent of a magic startup. Foundryside slowly spread out into using Orso, Sancia, and Gregor as POVs, but the sequel will begin in this format, and will add in some new ones. This is just a result of the story and world getting bigger. You need new perspectives to help the audience comprehend the scale of the stakes. I suspect that’s why I often mix up my POVs – as the story expands, it moves into a new space.
-Thank you to Robert Jackson Bennett for taking the time to answer our questions!
Although it has been awhile since I read A Veil of Spears, the third book in The Song of the Shattered Sands by Bradley P. Beaulieu, it has stuck with me as one of the best things I have read so far this year. As such, I decided to see if I could talk with Bradley now that his series is half published and see how he felt it was going. He graciously responded to me, and now that I have my act together I have finally been able to get the questions and answers up! Enjoy:
So you have now finished Veil of Spears and are three books (published) into your six book series. How do you feel? Do you feel that you are on track? Relieved to be over the halfway mark? Worried about the ending?
As always, I’m roughly one book ahead of the publication schedule. I’ve just finished Book 4, Beneath the Twisted Trees, so it feels like I’m four-sixths of the way there instead of only halfway! But it feels good. In A Veil of Spears, It finally started to feel like I was providing more payoffs instead of always setting things up. So in that respect it’s satisfying. It’s nice to pull back the curtain on some of the things I’ve hidden for so long. And the series itself is on track. I knew where it was headed from the beginning, and it’s pretty much stayed on course the entire time. I’m really looking forward to finishing up the last two books and calling the series done!
After all this writing what is the thing you are most proud of in the first three books? Any particular scene that made you go “damn I am good” or a character you love?
One of the things I was really keen to explore is this notion of the loss of one’s family, the loss of one’s heritage, and the rediscovery of those things. I think some of it stems from loving things like The Lord of the Rings with all its hints of lost civilizations. Well, now I get to have my cake and eat it too! I hint at a ton of things from the past and get to revive them over the course of the books.
So it’s been a real pleasure to realize that goal. I’m not done yet. There’s still more to uncover and more for Çeda to do, but it’s been great to see it all unfold. And I’ve done it through the main character, Çeda, who has also grown up in the telling of this tale. It’s been very rewarding to see her blossom as the books have progressed. She’s been through a lot, but is coming out the other side stronger for it. Harder. At the same time, though, she hasn’t lost sight of what matters most to her: her friends, her family, her tribe.
What have you learned from each of the three books? Are there any areas you felt you needed to improve on the second half of the series or are you perfect in every way?
I think every writer is evolving. One of the things that I’ve tried to pay attention to in the past few books (with some stinging but very helpful comments from my editors!) is to be careful about over-explanation. Writers have to take care with past events, be they backstory, events from previous books, or even events in the same book that for whatever reason are being rehashed (usually due to some unfolding mystery). Explain too little and you confuse the reader. Explain too much and they feel pandered to, or worse, get bored. It’s always a bit of a challenge to decide where to draw the line, but often I was erring on the side of explaining too much, fearing the reader would get left behind. I’m adjusting a bit, trusting the reader more, and I hope it’s creating a smoother read for fans of the series.
I know this is like asking who is your favorite child, but who is your favorite character and which is your favorite book in the series (and why)?
Well the easy answer is Çeda, and it’s true. She’s the focus of the series. She’s the one who’s guided my choices the most.
That said, there is a close runner-up. Meryam. She’s someone who started off as a player in the game that’s unfolding in Sharakhai, but I didn’t envision her as being quite as big a player as she’s turned out to be. She’s bold. Driven. Much more than I gave her credit for initially. And while she’s ruthless, her actions are completely believable from her perspective. I’ve really enjoyed writing her scenes, and seeing how her story is starting to unfold. She’s become a wildcard in the series.
How much research have you done between books? Song of the Shattered Sand is some of my favorite Middle Eastern/Arabian inspired fantasy and as someone completely ignorant of the culture I am curious how much comes from their lore.
I tend to do the most research in the customs of the Middle East, traditions surrounding food and holidays. I also like to research garb and weaponry, sometimes fighting technique, either in single combat or in larger conflicts, just to get a sense for how those things would have played out in our world at that time. I also like absorbing stories, legends, mythology from that time period. One of my favorite acquisitions in recent years is Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights by Sergio Toppi, published by Archaia Press. It’s a stunningly beautiful book, filled with retellings from the stories in Arabian Nights (or A Thousand and One Nights). It’s well worth it for the artwork alone, but also if you’re interested in Arabic tales.
What was your inspiration for the series? Was there any particular ideas, books, or events that you experienced that led to it? In particular I would love to know your inspiration for a story involving hunting 12 kings with different powers using poem riddles. It combines so many of my favorite things and I would love to know how you came up with it.
The story had a really long evolution. It took me years to develop. The basic desert city was first. The asirim, the strange mummified creatures who steal into the city each month, came very early as well, long before I knew who Çeda was or that there were in fact twelve kings. Slowly, the city and its status as a great power in the world unfolded. And I found out who Çeda was. I knew by then that I wanted it to be a story about rediscovery, and what better way for that to happen than if her mother was taken from her and if she had almost no connection to her family and her people? But as I thought about it more, I wanted there to be some connection from Çeda to her mother. That was how the book of riddles was born. Her mother had secrets. Very dangerous secrets. And she and Çeda both loved literature. What better way to pass down her mother’s secrets than through a book they both loved? Once the idea came to me, I really embraced it. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the series: this one thing, a book of poems and stories, linking mother and daughter beyond death and setting this grand tale into motion.
In general, do you have any favorite fantasy/sci-fi books? What are you reading right now?
Some recent favorites have been Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, China Miéville’s The City & The City, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. Right now I’m reading Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines on audio and Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld on ebook, and really enjoying both.
The series takes place in a beautifully realized desert setting. What is the most thirsty you’ve ever been, and how did you draw from that experience when writing these books?
I’ve loved writing about this grand desert. I’d wanted to write a desert-based fantasy for a long while. It kept showing up in my short stories and even in my first published trilogy, where the characters traveled to a vast desert in part of the final installment. More than being thirsty, I’ve drawn on the times where I’ve been in really hot settings. Try Phoenix in summer. I also lived in Southern California for five years, and went on various hikes and excursions. It’s dry down there, and those experiences helped me as well. We’re always told “write what you know” but sometimes we forget that we can both write what we know and extrapolate from tangential experiences to create a whole new experience in our books. Perhaps “borrow from what you know” would be a better way to put it.
Martha Wells is a woman with a ridiculous number of talents. I have recently been selling her Murderbot Diaries series to anyone who will listen. She also has a number of popular full length books and does writing for a number of established fictional universes such as Star Wars. Most recently, it was announced that Martha would be tackling the story for Magic the Gathering’s next card set, Dominaria, and writing the story pieces that come out alongside the new cards. With so many cool things going on for her, I decided that I really wanted to see if I could talk with Martha about what it was like to write in so many different formats and subjects. To my joy, she got back to my numerous questions about her work and the answers are posted below, enjoy:
I have been reading your Murderbot Diaries and describing them as novellas. Do you think of them as novellas? Or just short books? How do you define them as works of writing in your mind?
The first one was actually intended to be a short story, and then I realized it really needed to be longer. I still wanted to keep it short, so novella length seemed perfect. I’d also written novella-length work before, in my two Stories of the Raksura collections. It just seemed the right length to tell the story.
The Murderbot series has some of the best writing for a shorter novel I have seen. What is your technique when it comes to dividing page space in a book this small, and how does it differ from a book like The Cloud Roads?
Thank you! I don’t think I used any particular technique. I’ve written a lot, including a lot of work at shorter lengths, and after all that experience I just have a feel for how to pace a story or book for the length I want. In a longer novel like The Cloud Roads, there’s more room for subplots and more detailed exploration of the world. In a novella, you have to concentrate on the story and let the reader pick up on the details of the world as the plot develops.
What was your inspiration for the Murderbot Diaries? What made you want to write a story about relatable AI’s with a talent for killing people?
I’ve seen a lot of stories about AIs who want their freedom and immediately use it to kill humans, which seems like a very human-centric view of the situation, motivated by guilt at how the humans are using the AI. So I wanted to write an AI who was mostly indifferent to humans, who just wanted to be left alone, who had no particular desire to hurt anyone that wasn’t trying to hurt it.
Murderbot’s love of media left me with some big questions. Do they love TV because their personality was programed to love TV? Is it something that they completely developed on their own? How much of Murderbot’s identity was crafted by code and how much was made by her experiences or something else?
No, it wasn’t programming. As a combination of AI and human brain tissue, the constructs like Murderbot all have the potential to develop their own personalities. The governor modules are supposed to keep that from happening, but they aren’t always successful. I think that becomes more obvious in the later novellas where Murderbot encounters other contracts and bots.
You have written a number of sci fi and fantasy novels at this point. In your opinion, what are the major differences when it comes to writing in each genre?
I don’t really think there’s much difference at all. They both require consistency in world building and engaging characters that the reader will care about.
I saw the announcement that you would be writing a series of shorts for Dominaria, the next Magic the Gathering set. Are you a magic player yourself? Is this something that you pursued because you wanted to write in the magic world or was this something where Wizard of the Coast came to you for your excellent writing?
They approached my agent with the offer to write the fiction for Dominaria. I’ve been familiar with Magic for a long time through the artwork, which is so gorgeous, though I’d never played the game. (Most of my game-playing experience is all in older RPGs.) I was excited by the opportunity to do something new, in such a well-established, beautifully illustrated world, and it’s been a lot of fun.
What is different (easier/harder) about writing for an expanded universe like Magic (or Star Wars, as I know you have some books in that ring as well)?
It takes a lot of research. Even if it’s something that you’re a big fan of (like in my case Star Wars and Stargate Atlantis), as a reader or viewer who isn’t thinking of writing in the universe, there’s a lot of detail you can miss. When you’re going to actually work with an established universe, you have to take in a lot of detail, understand how everything works, as well as the personalities of your characters. It’s a lot of fun, but it can be a lot of work, too.
How do you feel about your Star Wars novel Razors Edge being relegated to the now non-canon Legends timeline? Would you like to write another Star Wars book in the current canon universe?
It was very disappointing. I really like the current canon universe and the new movies, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d want to do again.
Is there another license you’d be interested in writing for that you haven’t had the opportunity yet? (e.g. Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, etc)
If I had the opportunity, I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, so I’d be tempted to write something for it. But right now, I want to concentrate on my own universes.
What are some of your favorite sci fi and fantasy novels?
I have a ton of favorites. Right now I really enjoyed The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera, the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin, the Court of Fives series by Kate Elliott, Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee, Jade City by Fonda Lee.
The cover art for your work is consistently amazing, do you have a favorite piece of cover art out of all of your novels?
It’s hard to pick one. I think the covers for the Books of the Raksura by Matthew Steward and Yukari Masuike are some all time favorites.
Do you wear novelty socks?
Sometimes! I have octopus socks.
Thank you again to Martha Wells for taking the time to answer some questions, and for those of you unfamiliar you can start reading her new Dominaria storyline next week on the Magic the Gathering site!
With this impressive year of fantasy coming to a close, I find myself reflecting on all the great books I read this year and reaching out to authors to talk with them more about their impressive creations. One such author in particular is the lovely Shannon Chakraborty, author of The City of Brass,which I reviewed here. A wonderful book about Arabic lore, family, and a magical city in the desert – I got to ask Shannon a number of questions about her debut book, and a few about her upcoming sequel The Kingdom of Copper. The questions are posted below, enjoy:
I got to hear you and others speak at a New York Comic Con panel about female authors, writing historical fantasy, and writing from diverse backgrounds. It was one of the best panels I have attended at a comic con, so thank you. On it you talked briefly about borrowing from history/the real world and inventing things on your own when you write. How do you balance the two?
You’re welcome, and I’m happy you enjoyed the panel. For me, it’s not really a balancing act; it’s more building from a scaffolding that already exists. I set my books in the “real” world: there might be magic, but there’s also the historical fact of Napoleon’s occupation and the idea that a dish conceived in ancient Persia wouldn’t have New World vegetables in it. But I don’t really mind this or find it limiting; it’s fun to peel back the facts and imagine the emotions and people behind them.
The City of Brass starts in our world in the city of Cairo, but quickly departs it for fantastical lands. Will we make our way back to our world in the future or will be primarily exploring more cities from your imagination?
Both! The books are very much meant to take place in our world—it’s just that djinn exist largely unseen beside humans. We’ll definitely see more of the magical world, but we’ll also see some of our djinn characters visiting that of the humans…perhaps even a city we’ve already seen!
I assume you have to do a lot of research to write historical fantasy. What is the weirdest historical fact or quirk you have come across while researching for you book?
There are a lot but a particular favorite at the moment is medieval treasure-hunting guilds in Egypt. It’s something I need to dig into a bit more for the (hopefully!) next book series, but I’ve always loved learning about how people in the past interacted with their past. I came across a mention of these guilds after an excerpt from a contemporary scholar basically railing against ancient magic and hustlers and was just thoroughly amused by the entire depiction.
Your portrayal of Ali and his family is one of the most organic relationships I have read. Where did you get this inspiration for their dynamic? Did you draw it from your own life? Do you have siblings and which one of them are you?
Thank you! I come from a pretty big family and always enjoy seeing well-done portrayals of complicated, messy, exasperating and yet also still loving relatives; I think it’s a thing many of us can relate to. And I’ve always had a particular fascination with rival princes. They’re fairly common in history, and yet I can’t imagine the emotions that go behind making a decision to war against your own brother.
There was certainly some inspiration from my own family. My twin brother and I are very close, and I was very protective of him, especially when we were younger, even when we were fighting. This was definitely an emotion and dynamic that I was trying to capture with Muntadhir and Ali. Though my brother isn’t a wealthy, libertine playboy destined to rule a shaky kingdom so the similarities end there!
As someone who also has been accused of having a stick up his ass, I particularly identified with Ali. Will Ali learn to relax a little in the future, and can you pass on the secret to taking life a little less seriously to me?
So this is where I confess that I probably have more in common with Ali than I like to contemplate! Not sure I can offer advice, but maybe like Ali, we need to broaden our experiences a bit and learn to let loose on occasion.
One of my favorite things in The City of the Brass is that the most powerful Djinn/Daevas are the healers. I constantly feel that healing magic is undervalued in fantasy, and often relegated to only kind motherly figures. Seeing those powers in the hands of tyrants and others was very refreshing. What inspired you to take this path with your story?
Ha, the fact that I’ve worked in healthcare! I wrote a lot of this while managing a large obstetrics & gynecology practice (while my husband went to medical school), and I really wanted to capture the messy reality of medicine. It’s not always glamourous and noble; it can be exhausting, the work is bloody and tiresome and challenging, and sometimes your patients are terrible. It requires a confidence bordering on arrogance to cut into a person for their own good, and I wanted to show how a character might grow into that.
What is up next for Nahri and Ali? Can you give us any hints of what book two will be about at a higher level?
We’ll be seeing a lot more of the city itself. Nahri and Ali were left in difficult straights at the end of the first book and they’ll need to improve their game—both political and magical—if they want to protect what they love.
What did you learn or improve on over the experience of writing The City of Brass? Have you any lessons you experienced first hand that you would impart to others?
Follow where the narrative is going, not the plot points you wrote down two years ago. I dreamed and played in this world for so long, it was hard to give up on some aspects that I loved. I tried to keep in mind that I was telling a story not writing a history essay.
What do you like to read? What are you reading right now? Was there any book that inspired The City of Brass or inspired you as a writer in general? What are your favorite books?
I like to read pretty widely though in the past year, I’ve been trying to catch up on my SFF. I read a lot of history for research and for enjoyment, and right now I’m split between a history of medicine in the Indo-Islamic tradition and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. My favorite books are Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and The Moor’s Accountant by Laila Lalami, though the latter broke my heart!
If you haven’t gotten a chance to check out The City of Brass, I highly recommend it and thank you to Shannon Chakraborty again for taking the time to talk with me.
I have been really lucky recently, getting the chance to talk to multiple of this year’s debut authors. This week I got to talk with David Mealing about his massive new book, Soul of the World. It was a huge debut novel that impressed me with its numerous magic systems, giant scope, and interesting world: you can find the review here. Due to how big an undertaking the book seemed to be, I had a lot more questions about Mealing’s writing style compared to past interviews I have done, but there is still some great teasers for book two if you are looking for hints as to what is going to happen! Enjoy:
How would you elevator pitch Soul of the World? When I talk to other people and recommend it I find myself just gushing endlessly as I try to explain all the cool things in it. How would you sell it in one breath?
Fantasy is *so* hard to pitch. I’m terrible at it. That said, my go-to is: “French revolution with magic, set in an alternate-world colonial America. Think Marie Antoinette alongside a magic-infused Iroquois Confederacy.”
There’s a lot more going on in the book (and thank you for any gushing over it!), but I think that’s a fine starting point.
What is your writing process in general? What is the anchor or starting point for your story and how much of it do you map out in advance and how much is made up as you go?
I’m very strict on process. Three sessions per day, with a spreadsheet to track the output from each session against an overall daily/weekly/monthly goal. I’ve always found it hard to work for long periods on any given day – I need at least a few hours in between each writing session to let the scene and story arcs soak before I continue. Usually I’ll do 700-900 words right after I wake up, another 400-600 after lunch, then 500-1000 in the evening.
On the story side, I’m almost a pure discovery writer. I always know what to expect in the scene I’m writing now, the scene I’m writing next, and where the current ‘chunk’ fits in the overall arc of the book & series, but I’m also willing to let the story surprise me and take me in a different direction than I expected it to go. I’ve killed off characters and destroyed entire story arcs because an unexpected death fit the scene I was working on. And I’ve gone back and re-written 40,000+ word chunks because I had a better idea during editing. I find my discipline with daily output gives me the freedom to explore while also meeting deadlines – the best of both worlds, as it were.
Why so much magic? Did anyone tell you having so many magic systems was a bad idea? Did people think it was a good idea? Please tell me more about what your writing process for your magic was like.
Hah! Yes. This is one of the more common fights between me and my editor. Not that she doesn’t love the magic, she just wants to be sure I’ve fleshed each idea out enough and made it grokkable so it has the impact I want it to. (And incidentally, a light book 2 spoiler – let’s just say my editor and I have quite a bit more fighting to do about the number of new systems and powers introduced in the next volume in the trilogy!)
As for where the magic comes from – I write what fits the scene in my head. If it calls for a new magic system, I make one on the spot and polish it during revisions and editing. Very little to no planning beforehand; all the details, rules, powers, etc come about because a particular scene wants to showcase something new.
If you could only have one of your magic systems, which would it be?
No fair! I need them all to tell the story. And which one is my favorite depends on whichever scene I wrote last, most of the time. So right now, that would be a magic system you haven’t seen yet, from one of the epilogues in book 2… 🙂
All three magic systems were amazing, but I enjoyed Arak’Jur’s totem-esk magic the most. Do you have any magical beasts and powers that you rejected or removed from your novel because they didn’t work? If so, why?
Well thank you. I enjoyed writing those scenes immensely. Arak’Jur’s magic had almost no changes from the first draft, as far as how it worked mechanically. There was one power I gave him in an early scene that I cut and replaced with him using mareh’et instead, strictly to consolidate the number of powers and keep it grokkable. Otherwise it’s all as-originally-written.
One of the most interesting aspects of you magic was the effects of combining the various schools into new powers. Have you mapped out what all these combined effects will do already or are you playing it more by ear?
This was originally *much* more prevalent in the book, for Order magic (the leylines) especially. Originally every binding had different effects when paired with other bindings; at one point I’d mapped out a big matrix of combinations in a spreadsheet trying to keep them all straight. In the final draft though, we opted to streamline this and keep it much simpler – one of my editor’s better ideas, I think. She struggles to rein me in, and most of the time she succeeds, to the book’s benefit.
Where do we go next? The ending of your first novel was fantastic, but I don’t even know where we go next. What is the next stage/arc of your story (if you can share it)?
Again thank you! My goal for the series has always been to peel the onion one book at a time. In book one I introduce a core plot that’s mostly resolved by the end, with a metaplot revealed around the edges of the main story. Book two will fully reveal and resolve the metaplot from book one, but also reveal an even deeper layer, which will then be the focus of book three.
This was your first novel and a huge undertaking, What lessons have you learned from working on Soul of the World that you want to apply to writing book 2?
SOUL OF THE WORLD was my first attempt at writing creative fiction of any kind. I grew an enormous amount as a writer while writing & revising it – with full credit to my editor, my agent, the agency president, and all of my other advance readers (especially my wife!) for helping me get there. As a result, book two’s first draft was a much tighter manuscript than the first drafts of SOUL. I had to rewrite over a hundred thousand words of SOUL before it was ready to shop to potential agents; book two should hopefully see us spending more time on polish and less on fixing rookie mistakes. Otherwise, book two is already turned in and I’m currently waiting for first reactions from my editor. So let’s hope it goes smoothly from here!
In Soul of the World we saw that most of the action in the story is happening in the colonies, but that there is an entire second continent with it’s own countries and people. Since so much of your magic is tied to location, do you plan on visiting other lands in the story or focusing just on the current surroundings?
As the series progresses we’re going to travel a *lot*. Book two will take us west across the New World, across the sea to the Old World, even to undiscovered continents (plural!) that wouldn’t have appeared on any maps in book one. The story gets bigger in a hurry, though I still try to keep things focused on the characters as they respond to the challenges in front of them.
Are you a big reader of fantasy yourself? What are some of your favorite books? What is the last book that you read (of any genre) that you would recommend?
Very much so. Jacqueline Carey’s KUSHIEL’S DART is my favorite book of all time. I grew up devouring and re-devouring Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series whenever a new book came out. I adore Robert E. Howard’s CONAN stories and other classic swords & sorcery stuff like Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. N.K. Jemisin continues to amaze me with everything she writes. Additional plugs for Brandon Sanderson, Pat Rothfuss, Juliet Marillier, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Mary Robinette Kowal.
The last book I read was READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline. I loved the audiobook so much I went and bought a physical copy to read too. Can’t recommend it enough, both the audio version and the printed edition. Some of the most compelling storytelling I’ve consumed in years.
What in Soul of the World are you most proud of? Which character, magic, part of the world, or element were you most excited to share with other people?
This answer could change on any given day, but today I’ll say Sarine and Zi. I’ve been the lonely kid watching the world from a distance, and I would have given anything for a magical companion to share it with. These days I have my amazing wife & daughters, but I hope Sarine and Zi’s story connects with people and inspires them to want to be as creative and fearless as she is.
Thank you David for talking with me, and I am super pumped for book two. If you haven’t checked out Soul of the World yet, I implore you to go give it a shot!
If you haven’t gotten your hands on Kings of the Wyld yet, by Nick Eames, then you are missing out (review here). It is definitely going to be one of my top books of 2017 and every other reviewer and blogger I know is talking about how much they love it. On top of Kings being an amazing book, Nick is a great guy who kindly agreed to answer a slew of interview questions we sent him. Some of the questions and responses are mildly spoilery – so I would skip this and come back if you have not read the book yet (which you should, immediately. Seriously go read it). The questions and responses are below!
Compared with those belonging to Clay Cooper, how does your arsenal of shrugs measure up?
Not even close! Clay tends to underestimate his own intelligence, and so relies on shrugs to avoid saying something foolish. I, on the other hand, sound foolish all the time.
The Rot is a major part of the world, and character development in your story. Are you drawing from personal experience or was it more of a thought experiment for you?
The latter, for sure. The Rot—and the arbitrary menace it represents to the mercenaries of Grandual—is vaguely representative of the STD’s (including HIV) that afflicted many ‘Golden Era’ rock stars. It’s not something you are guaranteed to get when you venture into the Heartwyld, but it’s always a risk.
It actually played a lesser role in the original draft of KINGS. Thankfully, I was asked to flesh out the story a bit during revisions. The result was a few very poignant scenes that it’s hard to imagine the book without.
Can dragons swim?
Great question! The answer is yes—about as well as dogs can swim. They cannot, however, breath underwater…
How many band names were inspired by real bands?
Most of them were inspired by songs, since using direct band names (outside of a few exceptions like Neil the ‘Young’) is a little on the nose. Some cool (in my opinion) examples are the Wheat Kings (A Tragically Hip song) and Courtney and the Sparks (named for the Joni Mitchell album The Court and the Spark).
A lot of people think Saga is a reference to the Canadian band of the same name. In fact, it was the name of a sword that belonged to the main character in an unpublished book I worked on for almost a decade. Saga is an homage to that.
Were there any monsters you wanted to include but didn’t? If so can you give us a peek?
Ha! I think I got them all. I can tell you, however, that a major plot point in book two revolved around fighting a dragon. But then I thought: “Nope. The dragon’s been done.” So it’s going to be something quite different—but just as deadly.
You admirably managed the difficult combination of emotional and comedic throughout the book. How did you manage to have such a humorous book still resonate so strongly?
Firstly, thanks for saying so. I think two things contributed to this. One is that I’m a hopeless sap, so even though I tried to make the book humorous and lighthearted the whole way through, I can’t help but try and add poignancy here and there. It’s in my nature—and I think life can be funny and sad and scary all at once, so I’d hoped this book would reflect that.
Ultimately, I owe a great deal to my agent and editor, who suggested which scenes were perhaps so ridiculous that they undermined the more serious aspects of the book. To their credit, they let me keep a few of them anyway (Moog tripping over his robe on the hillside, Moog throwing honeyed hams at his enemies, etc). Alas, because of them you’ll never see Moog eating a urine-soaked carrot from a vegan cannibal’s vegetable garden. It’s all about balance…
Who is your favorite band member?
Clay, for sure. Moog is a very close second. But honestly, I love each of them so much.
Will we ever visit Clay’s inn in future books?
*nods enthusiastically* I’m not at liberty to say, sorry. Another great question, by the way. I really appreciate the interest in the lives of these characters beyond the book.
Did you write Kings simply in order to make a really bad portal reference?
You mean a REALLY AWESOME portal reference? That joke just materialized out of nowhere as I was writing the scene and I am so very grateful it did. I know some of these references take readers out of the book—but a lot of things (waiters, stop lights, falling asleep) take you out of a book. It was important to me that fellow gamers could read this book and think, “This Nick Eames guy…he’s one of us.”
I stayed up unreasonably late on a work night in order to finish the last 30% of your book. What’s the most ill-advised thing you’ve done due to the fact you couldn’t put a book down?
That’s amazing to hear! Thank you for saying so. And an easy question to answer! I was working in a restaurant while reading THE VIRTUES OF WAR by Steven Pressfield, and was starting my shift just as Alexander the Great was pulling off his brilliant ruse at Guagemela. Instead of putting the book away, however, I STOOD THERE READING IT in the middle of the restaurant—which was, in my defense, mostly empty! Boy, did I ever get in in trouble. Totally worth it.
So it seems Clay has a lot of difficulty keeping his weapons for more than a chapter or two. Was this a commentary on an aspect of his character (a rough man who deep down doesn’t really want to fight, and just wants to protect) or was this more of a running gag a la Jain and her band of oddly dressed thieves?
The former. Clay’s whole deal is protecting people, although he does hurt a lot of people with that shield, come to think of it. It was definitely a risk writing a huge final battle in which the protagonist can’t actually use a weapon, but I think it works wonderfully, since you get to see each member of the band—Clay included—do that they do best.
If Saga came out with an album, what do you think the album art would be?
Probably the cover of the book. The artist (Richard Anderson, who is amazing) was given the mandate of making it look like one of those old album photographs where the band is standing around looking as if they didn’t stage the shot at all, and I think he nailed it.
That, or just Blackheart’s scarred and weathered face. That might be cool, too.
Sticking with the band analogy that was ever-so-subtly peppered throughout the book, if Gabe is the frontman/lead singer, what instruments would the rest of the bandmates play?
Subtly? Were we reading the same book!? I kid, I kid! Again: awesome question! It goes like this: Gabriel on vocals/guitar, Ganelon on lead guitar, Clay (the forgettable one) on bass, Matrick on drums, and Moog on keyboards/triangle/cow bell.
Scenes involving certain characters were often influenced by the instrument they represent. While writing Matrick’s fight against Larkspur’s thralls, I listened to Led Zeppelin’s Moby Dick (essentially a 20+ minute drum solo) on repeat. The same goes for Ganelon. There is a very specific live version of the Stairway to Heaven guitar solo that I’ve probably listened to a thousand times and had in mind whenever Ganelon was destroying people.
Kings of the Wyld has an interesting structure as a series. I noticed that the sequel no longer follows the cast from the first book, but their children instead. Was it hard writing a book knowing you would have to say goodbye to the original cast at the end? Do you wish you had more time with them?
Not really. In fact, some people interested in publishing it asked that all three books feature Clay and his bandmates, so I was glad when Orbit didn’t insist on it. The truth is, KINGS OF THE WYLD is about that ‘one last, great adventure’, and to drag it out would seem disingenuous to both the characters and the story I was trying to tell.
A few characters from the first book will show up in the second (and also the third) but in a setting where mercenaries are representative of rock bands…Well, sticking to one band would kind of be like listening to, say, Black Sabbath all the time. In book two, it’s time to meet Guns’n’Roses…
Are there any other music genres you would want to make a fantasy novel around? Country? Smooth Jazz? EDM? Would you consider adding in bands from other music tropes into the current world?
As insinuated above, the second book explores a world where new bands wander into the house after old band kicked the door in. Whereas my writing soundtrack to book one consisted largely of 60’s folk and 70’s rock, book two draws influence from 80’s punk, rock, and pop. So goodbye Floyd, Zeppelin, and Dylan (I’ll miss you, truly) and hello Queen, Van Halen, and Pat Benatar!
Any notable pet peeves? Overstuffed napkin holders? Dogs that act like cats? Smart cars?
Commercials that market cleaning supplies to women and BBQ’s to men. Fuck that noise!
Do you read fantasy yourself? Do you have favorite books or authors you recommend? Was there any other book that inspired you to write Kings of the Wyld?
I read all the time, almost every day. My favourite author—hands down—is Guy Gavriel Kay, and I would start with TIGANA or THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN if you haven’t read him before. His books are slow burns, but impossibly beautiful, and I’ve never, ever read anyone near as good. Also Scott Lynch, Pat Rothfuss, and Joe Abercrombie—in case you’ve been trapped under a rock and haven’t read everything by each of them yet. Also Lila Bowen’s WAKE OF VULTURES and Seth Dickenson’s THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT are recent favourites.
As for what book inspired me to write mine? READY PLAYER ONE, by Ernest Cline. It was a face-paced, shameless love letter to everything the author loves. So, too, is KINGS OF THE WYLD.
Thanks for the questions!
Well I know I am pumped as all hell for book two, Bloody Rose. Thank you Nick for taking the time to talk with us, and for making such a fantastic debut novel.
Max Gladstone is one of the big up and comers in fantasy these days. His Craft Sequence was just nominated for a Hugo for best series, and he has started multiple other group writing projects such as Bookburners. I am increasingly becoming a huge fan of his as he puts out more work, and he graciously agreed to let me ask him questions about his books and his life as an author. If you haven’t checked out any of his work yet you can find reviews for the first two Craft books here and here, and one for Bookburners here. Otherwise please enjoy our conversation below!
First off, some questions about you as an author as a whole:
You have a really interesting writing style that makes me feel like I know you as a person after reading your work. It makes me feel like we are already friends even though we have never met. Do you do this intentionally, do you just write yourself, or am i just insane and projecting because I am lonely?
Hah! I don’t think you’re making it up—I also don’t think I hide in my work too much. Many of my storytelling rhythms come from the gaming table, and when I sit down to write these days I am often just thinking about telling a story to my friends, and including little references and tips of the hat I’m sure they’ll catch. Different sorts of storytelling have their own idiosyncrasies, of course, but that common thread remains.
Do you have a plan for your career as an author? I know you are sorta wrapping up the first part of The Craft Sequence now (or so I thought until I saw the announcement for Ruin of Angels), and have started up the BookBurner project. Do you have any other authorial goals that you are striving towards that you want to talk about?
I have big dreams, and I’m working to see them come true. The tactical maneuvering is a lot more complicated—how do I get from there to here—and contingent on developments. I’m sorry if that sounds vague, but it’s hard to be more specific! In the near term, I’m focusing on writing a few excellent standalone novels, and on filling out the next phase of the Craft Sequence.
What do you like to read? Do you read fantasy and if so do you have favorite books and/or inspiration?
Everything! I read nonfiction, mysteries, plays, poetry, and, of course, fantasy and science fiction. I take joy and inspiration from my favorite authors—there’s a long list, but at the core we have Dorothy Dunnett, Roger Zelazny, Ursula LeGuin, and Robin McKinley; other major influences include Sam Keith’s The Maxx, The Sandman, Terry Pratchett, and Wu Cheng-en’s Journey to the West. And I’m always finding new inspiration, in history and literature.
If you could work on a new collaborative piece with any other author, who would you choose?
I don’t know! There are lots of people I’d love to collaborate with—and I’ve started to work with some of them already! Amal El-Mohtar and I are right now putting the finishing touches on an excellent novella that I’m excited to share with people, for example.
Are you doing a book tour anytime soon?
I’m often traveling to conventions—I don’t know about any plans for a book tour for Ruin of Angels, but those don’t generally finalize until later.
Then some questions about your work with your Craft Sequence:
When we read Three Parts Dead for our book club, one of the major things that a group of people loved was its great workplace wish fulfillment. The Craft Sequence feels like one of the most adult fantasy series we have read because of all the professional issues it tackles. Was this intentional or a byproduct of the general ideas you had for your book?
Responses to my books tend to fall into two rough categories: the people for whom it feels like an office power fantasy, and the people for whom it precisely captures the enormity (and enormousness) of their daily work. I think it speaks to the peculiar (and often unhealthy) culture of work these days, that we lionize jobs with this level of intensity. I wrote the Craft Sequence in part because the more I tried to understand my world, the more I found myself relying on the language of fantasy fiction, and I think that, yes, as a result, it is a pretty adult series—in that it’s about things that adults, and people trying to become adults, spend a lot of time worrying about.
I remember hearing that the next Craft Book was going to be Six Feet Over, but that seems to have changed to The Ruin of Angels while I wasn’t looking. Can you talk about what this change means or at least inform me if I am hallucinating new craft books?
No, you aren’t hallucinating! My editor and I decided that Six Feet Over, while an excellent title, wouldn’t be enough of a marker that we were starting a new phase of the Sequence. And since I plan the future books to tick forward in time, rather than jumping around the timeline, dropping numbers from the titles would be a good signal. We’ll see how well that works!
Were there any particular jobs or job stories that you drew from in your personal experience for any of the books?
Nothing I can talk about in an open channel! But in general, the books were informed by my experiences in the non-profit sector, in research firms, and by my friends’ experiences in finance, law, academia, and engineering.
Of all the occupations you have invented in the Craft Sequence, which would you want to do if you lived in the world?
Honestly, I’m not sure! People have a hard time of it in the Craft world, as they do in ours; every cool opportunity brings costs with it. I really like the machine-monks in Dresediel Lex, though. I love the notion of maintenance as a sacrament. I really think it is!
What was the inspiration for the setting of Dresediel Lex? Mesoamerican culture and faith is so rarely touched on (and even more rarely touched on in a meaningful way), that I really sat up and took notice.
I wanted to expand the world of the books and highlight different sorts of cultures existed in this world—and since I wanted the cultures to feel less like a planet of hats, where you have, like, the Warrior culture and the Peaceful Hippy culture and whatever, and more like a through-the-looking-glass version of our own, where complex belief systems produce a whole lot of complex people, I decided to draw heavily on existing analogues. The desert setting suggested Los Angeles and Mexico City; I did a lot of reading on Mesoamerican religion and anthropology, and the dynamics of colonization, and spent a lot of time talking to friends, in hope of getting things right.
There are some seriously metaphysical and strange scenes in the Craft Sequence. Was there any scene that was particularly hard to write?
Not really. My brain’s just pretty weird, I guess.
Would you consider doing a Craft graphic novel?
Certainly! Watch my site for further news….
Finally, some question about the wonderful Bookburners:
Was Bookburners was inspired by Buffy, and/or anything else? What made you want to sit down and write a story about kickass archivists?
I’ve never seen Buffy, but many of our writers have, and Julian, the co-founder of Serial Box, has as well, so we have a lot of Buffy fans on the creative team! As for why we wanted to write about kickass archivists—why wouldn’t you want to write about kickass archivists? There’s all the ass-kicking! And the archiving!
You have successfully completed your first season of Bookburners. What would you say is the most important thing that you have learned while writing the book and collaborating with other authors?
Notecards. Over the course of writing Bookburners S1, I got my notecard game on point, and learned how to outline by basically doing everything Margaret Dunlap does—and it’s changed how I write practically everything. On the one hand, I spend a lot more time planning now, but that time working on the front end makes the writing far smoother, and allows me to focus more on my line-by-line prose work.
What is the process involved in working on something like Bookburners compared to one of your Craft novels?
Now that I’m outlining my novels more, it’s quite similar. With Bookburners, though, there are always more stages, because everyone has to be on the same stage—so we write, and test, and talk to one another about what we’ve written, and go back in for another pass.
It is a strange experience reading a book episodically as opposed to the traditional chapters. I thought you guys did a great job making Bookburners feel like watching TV show episodes, but occasionally it felt like chapters ended rather abruptly. How did you approach making episodes instead of the usual chapters?
Thanks! We try to think of each episode as a story in its own right, with its own beginning, middle, and end, as well as considering its place in the season overall. it requires a little more structural thought out front, but in the end, the greater structure allows us to create a more compelling, propulsive fiction—if we land the beats correctly, of course.