Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tom Barczak Interview

This continues the interviews of weird/speculative fiction authors on the themes of Art & Beauty in Fiction.  Tom Barczak is an artist/architect who delivers splendid adventure with interesting characters, a beautiful style, and a haunting medieval setting. His fantasy fiction is compelling and poetic, and saturated with angelic warfare. We corner him here to learn more about his heroic journey, his creative process, and the spirits motivating him.

"I can’t not write about loss and love, death and rebirth.  It’s very much a part of who I am... Everyone has their own Heroes Journey. Tell it. And if you’re still on it, finish it. Then tell it." Tom Barczak 2014

The Cover: Gossamer covered sword

The cover of your debut novel Veil of the Dragon features a subtle, splendid weapon design.  It displays the sword of your crusader-like Servian Knights who swore oaths to only strike at evil demons, and to be merciful toward humans so much as to not strike them.  A symbol of their conviction was to cover their magic blades in fragile cloth. This was a great design that highlights the paradox of a military legion representing a benevolent religious organization.

Was this based in history or was this a Barczak creation?

TB: It was an image I carried in my head long before I even finished the story. Like a talisman. It carried so much meaning for me. Still does. In architecture there is a word we have, called a Parti. It is the essence."

Early Muses and “Studio”

Your online Bio goes as: “My background is an Artist turned Architect who is finally getting around to finishing those stories I started writing when I was sitting on my front porch as a kid.”  Of course, you are also illustrating those stories (see http://tombarczak.com/sketches.html ).  Given the poetic, fantasy milieu you created, I picture your childhood porch as the gateway between Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio. 
  • What was your early muses and porch-studio like? Was that porch haunted?

TB:  Hehehe. Nope. No gargoyles on my porch.  Just pretty much a normal porch. Problem was I’ve never done very good with normal. A large portion of my childhood was me wishing I was someone else, doing something else, somewhere else. I always had a hard time just being where my feet were. Basically I was just a weird little kid. And I would just sit there for hours just making stuff up.

Creative Processes

Clearly you’ve had stories brewing in your head since childhood, and have develop a portfolio of artistic talents along the way; so your thoughts have been growing simultaneously with the tools you used to capture them.
  • What type of art did you create prior being an architect?
  • Does your architecture background inform your planning of a story? 
  • Do you plan all your work to be illustrated?
TB:  For a long time, particularly during my art school / college years, my painting was therapy for me. It was the only way I knew to take those places in my head and make them real. It was very dark. But it was like magic. It let me have some control over my feelings, instead of just getting swept away. But, looking back, I think that control I thought I had was only an illusion. What it did, was help my outsides match my insides a bit, which for the moment at least, would give me a little peace. The illustration I do now is just that, illustration. Not nearly the cathartic work I sought in my paintings. 
As for my writing and architecture, well, that’s an entirely different thing altogether. I believe that part of me allows my stories to have structure. And it also gave me an important tool. I tend to write with brevity. Very few words compared to what I see others do. Almost like a movie script. But a novel needs a bit more flesh than a movie script. So when I finish a piece, then I get to go back and do what I call, painting between the buildings. 
At least for now, I intend to illustrate my books. It’s hard for me to separate the two. But I understand it may not be appropriate for everything either.

Faith-inspired Fairy Tales:

Until I read your work, I had not stumbled across religiously-inspired fiction since C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien (fantasy also derived from Christianity). As a die-hard agnostic, I thought the delivery of The Veil of the Dragon was wonderfully obscure; any audience can enjoy it (see review) .
Even though it is far from a controversial novel, I imagine that ultra-conservative religious folk may think it improper to dream up fantasy evolutions of religion…just as paranoid atheistic readers may fear they may be subverted into being exposed to religion involuntarily. 
  • Please confirm if faith played a role in writing or reading (i.e. is Faith a Barczak Muse)
  • Conversely, does the process of creative writing evolve your own faith?
TB: The biggest criticism I’ve ever had regarding my work has had had to do with the undertones of religion there. I don’t feel particularly bad about that. I certainly have no intention of converting anyone to anything. Nor is it any of my business what someone else believes.

Fact of the matter is I have to write what I know. I’m a Catholic and a Christian, but most of my faith I learned outside of a church. I’ve had the benefit of good teachers in my life. Men and women who taught me how to live a life based on principals and not on how I felt or thought at any given time. They continue to teach me to live a life not based on self, but one of being of service to others. I get to live a spiritual life today. It’s solely because of that, I believe, that I even get to write today.
So yes, some of that gets into my work. Anything less wouldn’t be the truth. And as a writer, I have to tell the truth. 

Symbolic vs. Allegorical fiction: 

In a Facebook conversation, I proposed categorizing your work as “Sword & Faith” or “Sword and Ghosts”; you replied that you preferred “Allegorical Fiction.” 
  • Just how allegorical is it?  Avoiding spoilers, can you clarify if specific people/ideas are re-casted in the book?  
  • Or is your more work more metaphorical and generalized? Any design strategies for those wanting to create allegorical fiction? 
TB: Some of what I discussed above. A big influence as well, was the death of my daughter, Olivia, when she was 2 ½. I think because of that, as well as some of my own other trials, I can’t not write about loss and love, death and rebirth.  It’s very much a part of who I am.
As for strategies, tell the truth. Doesn’t matter what your beliefs are. Everyone has their own Heroes Journey. Tell it. And if you’re still on it, finish it. Then tell it.

Beautiful Evil:

Master writers like Clark Ashton Smith, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and Edgar Allen Poe professed that weird fiction is Artistic, one goal being to terrify readers (see essays).  From the Dragon, its disembodied shadows, and the beings it corrupts, your manifestations of evil are indeed emotive, and arguably beautiful. Here are some excerpts:

"Behind him, a bitter sigh resounded through the bent and broken wood. The forest was speaking. Behind him, the path he’d only just cleared had gone. From the trees, shadows bled like oil, folding down amidst the branches.”
"The spirits’ breath hung like a black vapor in tendrils about them. Armored veils hid all but the abyss of their eyes. Beneath them, their acrid laughter shrilled out amidst the grinding clatter of their teeth. Yet it wasn’t laughter. No; it was a desperate sound, one of anticipation, the kind that a starving cur utters for carrion."  
  • Is it enjoyable or scary to capture evil in art?
  • Do you find it therapeutic (or helpful to contemplate) unknown concepts (from the divine to evil) by turning them into art? 
TB: A few thoughts. One is I believe I have a mild case of synesthesia. My senses are a little cross –wired, so sometimes I describe colors as smells and tastes as sounds. I think some of that comes out as a sensual quality of my work. 
The second one is that I absolutely believe evil can be just as beautiful as good. Often it’s more so. Check out the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Ever really looked at a black widow? Maybe not evil, but it’s certainly as beautiful as it is deadly. It’s captivating.
Bad is always going to look cooler than good.We’re drawn to the fix not consequences.And yes, it is therapeutic.  All of it.
It’s coming out of darkness that we best appreciate the light.It’s hard to appreciate heaven until you’ve been through hell.  
Thanks so much for having me. This was a lot of fun.Tom

Thanks to you, Tom, for sharing your soul in novels, art, and this interview! 

Readers can learn more about Tom Barczak and his work on his website:  http://tombarczak.com/

Check out other interviews by S.E. on the topic of  “Beautiful Weird Art/Horror”:
http://sethlindberg.blogspot.com/p/interviews.html

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Reader of Acheron - Book Review by S.E.

The Reader of AcheronThe Reader of Acheron by Walter Rhein
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Walter Rhein’s The Reader of Acheron is 'A Reader-Haunted World' (yes, that is a call-out to Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.)

Rhein begins with a bunch of characters struggling to survive in a futuristic earth in which reading is prohibited. Three key individuals emerge as tour guides. Two are the sword-swinging duo of Quillion and Cole who are reminiscent of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (famous Sword and Sorcery adventurers which share brawn and some intellect). The third is Kikkan, a slave who is rather like Marvel’s Hulk.

This is a fast reading narrative, with well-placed doses of humor, horror, and brutal fighting. The pacing is spot on. The conflict is ever present and breathtaking; the plight of Kikkan the slave is most compelling. To avoid spoilers but still highlight Kikkan’s drama, the below excerpt is taken from Kikkan’s first appearance; here his owner was encouraged to demonstrate his power over his property:
"He dropped his head to Duncan’s boot. The road smell was upon it. The dirt and the filth of miles of walking. The sweat of man and animal imbibed the leather. The scent of urine and fecal matter, all the trappings of a farm. Kikkan’s command was to clean the boot. But it was not enough to clean it. It had to be cleaned absolutely. Kikkan extended his tongue. The work began."
You’ll be rooting for Kikkan to overcome his oppression, but beware; Rhein rapidly takes Kikkan into even more emotive scenes that will leave you breathless. Like most dystopic fantasy (from Planet of The Apes, The Hunger Games, and Fahrenheit 451), the author invites readers to consider humanity’s societal flaws. And it is not just the possible re-emergence of slavery that is posited; many other group behaviors are on display here, the most obvious being state-based censorship (book burning), but also drug-use and blind-obedience to institutions (religious and political). Actually, the author’s voice occasionally sneaks through too strongly via Kikkan (whose articulate dialogue is a bit too refined given his life).

In summary, The Reader of Acheron is entertaining dystopia with intellectual depth. This establishes (a) an interesting dystopia and (b) a group of interesting characters to explore it. With such a solid foundation in place, this screams for a sequel. Indeed some places refer to this as "The Slaves of Erafor- Volume 1", so expect more!

View all my reviews

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Gramlich's Swords of Talera - Review by SE

Swords of Talera: Book One of the Talera CycleSwords of Talera: Book One of the Talera Cycle by Charles Allen Gramlich
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fun “Sword & Planet” adventure. Get svelte, escape to Talera.

I first discovered Charles Allen Gramlich via his poetic Sword & Sorcery books (highly recommended): Bitter Steel: Tales and Poems of Epic Fantasy and Harvest of War. Being biased toward weird adventure on “earth,” I was inspired to branch out slightly because of the Goodreads Sword & Sorcery Group's groupread for May-June 2014, the theme being “Sword & Planet.” Being a fan of Gramlich, this was a prime time to try out his Talera Cycle. If you ask the author why he should read it, he’ll reveal his humorous side (taken from his Facebook page):
"Dr. Charles Gramlich, professor of psychology at a prominent New Orleans University, has made the extraordinary claim that reading the three books of the Talera fantasy series, Swords of Talera, Wings Over Talera, and Witch of Talera, will actually help you lose weight and maintain a svelte figure. Gramlich says that, “those who read the slender volumes of the Talera series, which are quick and exciting stories, develop a speedier metabolism, allowing them to burn calories more quickly. This effect lingers for weeks after the books are finished,” he adds, “and can easily be prolonged further by consuming another book by the same author.” When asked whether that author, Charles ‘Allen’ Gramlich, was any relation, Dr. Gramlich abruptly yelled “Fire” and left the room."
Even though Swords of Talera: Book One of the Talera Cycle is not explicitly comedic, it does present pulp adventure with a dose of old-school “cheese” sprinkled atop weird milieu and tons of melee. It is a homeage the Sword & Planet subgenre initiated by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the early 1900’s with John Carter, and has all the tropes fans of the subgenre would demand: a man from the early 1900’s gets transported from earth to a strange planet; he can occasionally revisit earth; he manages to quickly converse with many aliens, lead armies, and free a maiden in distress.

Gramlich’s “Carter” is a 1914 sea merchant captain named Ruenn Maclang, whose arrogance and decisive leadership will remind readers of Indiana Jones. He gets transported to Talera mysteriously along with his crew, though he gets separated and strives to find his fellow earthlings. He is met by many humanoid aliens embroiled in slave-trade and war. Maclang becomes infatuated with a maiden in distress, and shallow-romantic interactions with her are intermittent. A sidebar on the technological history behind the mysterious Planet/Land Talera was distinctly cheezy sci-fi, but was not explored in depth in this first installment. There are continuous combat scenes, adequately fulfilling the “Sword” requirement for “Swords & Planet.” What I enjoyed most about this adventure was Gramlich’s poetic side, that creeps into every chapter. Check out these Excerpts:

Beautiful Battles
"…Heril leaped forward, swinging an axe over his head. The beast commander caught the stroke on his shield but the blow drove him to his knees. He surged up, hurling Heril back, and lashed out with his own axe. I watched Heril leap away and then saw no more of them as the beach exploded into motion.

War cries tore the sky. Steel whistled through air and rang on steel, or thunked into soft flesh. Men screamed with the impact and went down hard. Blood clotted the sand and stained the bright swords with ugliness.

Numbers were on our side and our first charge carried the Klar back. They recovered and held. Bodies piled up. Men stumbled over the dead and few who went down were given the chance to rise again. Axes and swords lifted and fell, came away drawing screams or soft sighs of death. Our enemies were cold and disciplined, but so too were Jedik’s men, and the slaves were hot with anger. It was that passion which finally broke the Klar line. But we paid for it in blood."

Weird Ambience
“A bass throbbing rose and fell with each pulse of emerald light, and over the vibration lay the screams of my men, crawling up the scale until their voices teetered on the edge of soundlessness. Then the screams were gone and the cold, verdant fire went with them.”

“The thing’s body was human-like but it was not a man. Its flesh gleamed an iridescent green and gold; scales covered it like armor. A broad, thick tail stretched away into the gray fog behind it. The creature’s face was an abomination, calling up visions of fallen angels burning centuries in hell. The eyes shone flat and stone blue, without whites. Two slits gashed the face where the nose should have been and the mouth below glistened wide and red, lined with yellowed fangs. Large vanes, like the wings of bats, extended from either side of the beast’s head, fluttering with each harsh breath it drew.”

“The lorn wind blew about the volcanic peak, playing dirges in the empty lava funnels. Both beauty and pain lived in that wind, and the drifting ghosts of ancient memories.”
Testimonial: I lost 3 pounds in just one week reading Swords of Talera! To stay with my weight maintenance program, I’ll continue with Wings Over Talera:Book Two of the Talera Cycle, and Witch of Talera.


View all my reviews