Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Interview: Making Dark Fantasy Accessible - Carol Berg

This article is simulcast on Black Gate.com
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Let us welcome Carol Berg (and Cate Glass)

Carol Berg majored in mathematics at Rice University, in part so she wouldn't have to write papers. But while earning her mathematics degree, she took every English course that listed novels on the syllabus, just so she would have time to keep reading. Somewhere in the midst of teaching math for a couple of years, raising three sons, earning a second degree in computer science at the University of Colorado, and a software engineering career, a friend teased her into exchanging letters written "in character." Once Carol started writing fiction, she couldn't stop. Carol's fifteen epic fantasy novels have earned national and international acclaim, including the Geffen Award, the Prism Award, multiple Colorado Book Awards, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. She has been twice voted the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Writer of the Year. Carol's newest work, written as her alter ego Cate Glass, is a fantasy adventure series called Chimera about a rag-tag quartet of sorcerers who take on missions of deception and intrigue in a world where magic earns the death penalty. The first book, An Illusion of Thieves, was released in May 2019 by Tor Books (A Conjuring of Assassins is due out Feb 2020). Carol lives in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with her Exceptional Spouse. She routinely attends conventions and was recently a special guest at the 2019 GenCon Writer’s Symposium. Carol Berg makes dark fantasy fun and accessible, a perfect candidate for our interviews on “Art & Beauty in Weird Fantasy” (see previous interviews listed below). Most authors who produce horror/fantasy are (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven by strange muses. Let’s tap the mind(s) of Carol Berg and Cate Glass.

Your epic fantasy is infused with grim reality — it is not simple good-vs-evil fantasy, nor is it over-the-top grimdark. How would you describe your style?

Yes, I would call most of my work dark fantasy — reflecting that grim and gritty reality you mentioned — and epic, because the stories deal with world shaking events. But my stories are told through a very personal lens. To me, when I am looking at these great events through the eyes and mind of a real, complex human (or almost human) being – someone I want to spend several years with -- I can always find threads of hope and light through the story and especially at the end of it all. I begin with heroes or heroines who have plenty of reason for angst—enslaved, exiled, a failure, entire extended family massacred, father a convicted murderer, or just released from a horrific, seventeen-year imprisonment. But for this individual to feel real to me, there has to be more than angst. Dark secrets, a dark side, or grudges are fine, but I want to interweave that with lots of other human characteristics: wit or humor, a soaring intellect or an inability to read, curiosity or superstitions, maybe phobias or maybe a truly romantic view of the world. Weird family histories are fun to incorporate. I enjoy protagonists who have interior conflicts: oath-sworn warriors driven by compassion, intellectuals with a penchant for violence, necromancers whose magic is based on an understanding of the natural world. A sorcerer might embrace magic with all its possibilities and find that the restrictions on his life are worth the wonders he can work. But other sorcerers might despise and detest the power that lives in them, and feel that those restrictions are “slavery with golden chains.” Some would-be sorcerers just can’t find their way to the magic they just know lives inside them. Sometimes the most “magical” character who fires a plot is the one who has no extraordinary power at all, but rather the personal characteristics to marshal the talents of those around them who do. I like to confront interesting, creative people like artists, singers, or librarians with events that stretch their abilities as well as push them into a life outside of their imagining. And every character must have the capacity to change. It’s up to me to figure out how to make them do that. Through events, through difficulties, through other real people who show up in the story. Around these complex characters, I aim for complexity in the world — many intersecting threads that have created the status quo — often with conflicting stakes that are not necessarily apparent to begin with, but ratchet with the action. Those ratcheting stakes need to be significant, not just for the world, but to the characters themselves. And in answer to the common queries: neither characters nor world are fully defined before I start writing, though the characters always are the seed of the story. Oftentimes I know just enough of the world to start writing. Both characters and story evolve as I go.
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Any professional tips for maintaining a good balance of tension? How can you brutalize protagonists while keeping appeal to wide audiences?

I can definitely be tough on my characters — mostly my protagonists. I put strong people in impossible situations, which means they have to go through some very dark times in order to see and understand and accept what has to be done to fix the problems I’ve set them. Sometimes that means changing themselves in ways they detest. I like to think that through these very gritty events, they are able to find a path of grace that leads to a hopeful — if not perfect — resolution. Writing those difficult situations is a perpetual teeter-totter. Some people think I chicken out. Some readers think I go too far. Some tell me that they had to take a break when Lucian went through his prison ordeal in Dust and Light or when Seyonne got trapped in the daemon dungeons of Kir’Vagonoth in Revelation. But I believe that epic events must impact people in lasting ways, and that it takes a great deal to make strong and stubborn people change. These are the fires that temper the blade… or ruin it. A few personal rules of thumb in what I put on the page:
  • I try not to minimize terrible truths of human history like slavery, war, or fanaticism. That being said, there are certain lines I will not cross and places I will not go in the events of my stories, especially with regard to children and to sexual violence.
  • When violence or brutality is necessary to the story, I try to show results — both physical and emotional — more than graphic details. I also try to portray the cost of violence, both to the subject and the perpetrator (if this perpetrator is a significant actor in the story).
Sociopaths or psychopaths or people driven solely by revenge don’t interest me all that much. Over the years I’ve found that villainous people are much more interesting if they have complex motives (sorry Sauron), some of which I – or my protagonist – might actually support. With some I like to imagine that with some small difference in experience or human intervention, that person might have turned out to be a good person. One of the best villains I have ever read comes from a story called The Heaven Tree by Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters of the Brother Cadfael Chronicles). The Heaven Tree is a trilogy of historical novels set in twelfth-century Wales. The noble named Isambard is one of the most black-hearted villains you will ever find — a very cruel and personal villain — and yet, by the end of those books you might find yourself weeping for him. How did the writer DO that? I am still striving to be that kind of writer!

As an engineer by training, you must be concerned about mass, heat, or energy balances. Is magic a conserved quantity for you (or is it a boundless source)?

First off, just to be clear, I was a software engineer, much more concerned with logic, languages, and software processes than with thermodynamics or mechanical processes! But my engineering background did indeed make me want to deal with technical issues correctly. You will never see any of my characters hauling about bags of gold as if they are bags of wheat a la Treasure of the Sierra Madre (that much gold would have collapsed the horses!) In the same way, in the Books of the Rai-kirah, when I was dealing with shapeshifting, I wanted to get the mass/energy balance right. Thus when a certain cursed person changes from a man to a lion, all the heat is sucked out of the vicinity. When he changes back, he is the one left shivering while the room warms up. As for magic, each of my worlds (the Rai-kirah books, the Navronne books, the D’Arnath books, the Collegia Magica books, Song of the Beast, and the Cate Glass Chimera books) has a different magic system. Sometimes magic derives from the individual’s blood, sometimes from genetic heritage, sometimes from magic infused into the land by actions of semi-divine beings. Sometimes from a combination of those things. In one series, the actual magic resides in objects in the natural world, while the power to use it and shape it comes from the individual sorcerer’s strength of will and clarity of insight. In all cases, however, I do impose limits on a sorcerer’s ability to make use of magic. That might correspond to physical or mental exhaustion that can be restored by eating, drinking, rest, or an infusion of hope or faith. Sometimes a sorcerer’s expenditure of power has to be renewed by particular actions that this person has learned to replenish the gift. So, in essence, yes. And no.
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Protagonists empowered with taboo-sorcery seem central across your varied worlds: i.e., Romy (Illusion of Thieves in Chimera); Seyonne (Transformation in Books of the Rai-kirah); Karon (Son of Avonar in The Bridge of D'Arnath); Lucian (Dust and Light in Sanctuary Duet). Can you shed light on forbidden magic and your sympathetic muse toward sorcery?

I must preface this answer with one of my mantras: Trope is not a dirty word. Literary tropes are stories, themes, or plot devices that have become embedded in our human DNA throughout millennia of storytelling. The Romeo and Juliet story, for example, or “the common man drawn into great events” story. Among plot elements you would find the unknown twin or the evil step-sibling or the alcoholic ex-cop private eye. Certain stories or plot elements become tropes because they engage and satisfy us on an emotional level. What differentiates a trope from a cliché is the treatment — the originality that comes from unique characters, settings, motivations, and plot twists. West Side Story is a retelling of the R&J tragic love story — one of thousands — but its reimagining is wonderful on its own. There are hundreds of fantasy tropes, whole websites devoted to listing them. Taboo sorcery is definitely one, and it’s one that speaks to me, I think because of the challenge of possessing a skill so awesome and marvelous, in a world that forces you to cripple yourself or die. It builds in major conflict and tension that I can use as a superstructure for all sorts of other conflicts. And the circumstances and origins of the prohibition are fodder for many interesting plot twists. In each of the cases you mention above, the prohibition arises from entirely different circumstances and plays an entirely different role in the overall plot.

Isolation is another theme, with your protagonists being torn from their communities either enslaved, outcast, or exiled. Does this reflect your own fears?

Thank goodness I’ve never had to face these challenges in my own life as so many have throughout history and still do in present day. But isolation can be a very powerful torment, especially when one’s heart is entirely rooted in strong, positive bonds to that community, as with Lucian de Remini and his family in the Sanctuary books or when one’s whole identity is rooted in a cultural mandate that protects an unknowing world, as happens with one of my protagonists. Even when that isolation is voluntary, as with the runaway rogue, Valen de Cartamandua-Celestine, an extrovert party guy who comes to the realization that he has never truly had a friend. But as I said earlier, I look for circumstances that force my characters to see the world in an entirely different way. Often we can’t do that unless the comfortable buffers of family, culture, or belief are ripped away. It is my task as a fiction writer to learn how this (or any other challenge) might affect the human person I am trying to create, and to share those effects on the page. Another subject I find myself returning to is the nature of memory. Does it live in our physical body or is it something that can be removed or shared or replaced? One reason I love writing fantasy is the opportunity to explore that kind of what ifs. The answers one finds in Ash and Silver (in the Sanctuary Duet) are something very different from those one finds in Guardians of the Keep (in The Bridge of D'Arnath).

Do you practice other arts (drawing, music, etc.)? What other types of art inspire you?

Alas, my nattering on the piano fell victim to the writing passion along with gardening, needlepoint, furniture refinishing, and a handful of other sidelines to day job and family. Eventually the day job went away, too. But I’ve always drawn inspiration from music of many kinds. I grew up with classical music, especially wonderfully emotional varieties like Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Tschaikovsky and Dvorak. And though my “regular life” has been filled with everything from the Doors to Dylan to Alison Krauss to Miles Davis, those are not writing related. I can’t listen to symphonic music, jazz, rock, or much of anything with English words, because those demand attention. But sometimes I find a particular set of tracks that puts me right in the imagination groove for a particular series. With the Navronne books, it was medieval chant that put me right into Gillarine Abbey, as well as secular court music from the courts of Malta, the Seattle Medieval Women’s choir, and Project Ars Nova. For the Collegia Magica books it was 17th-century music from France and Loreena McKennitt. Somehow with the Chimera books, it is the soundtrack from Blood Diamond and the evocative moody background music to the video game Braid that I pull up when I need to go deep.
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You’ve had several well-known cover artists (Luis Royo, Matt Stawicki, and most recently Google Doodler Alyssa Winans) depict your characters & worlds employing very different styles. Did you get a chance to guide cover art?

Sadly (in some cases) and fortunately (in other cases) I have had very little say in my cover art. Publishers are notoriously reluctant to leave marketing considerations in the hands of authors – and covers are totally marketing. Some of my covers have been gorgeous. Even the ones I most regret were well executed. I totally admire anyone who has visual art skills and can come up with an excellent cover design, and the marketing aspect often escapes me entirely. I live in horror of having to tell an artist what I want. I just know what I like when I see it.

After establishing fifteen books over two decades, your alter ego emerged: Cate Glass. Why the pseudonym now?

In short: new publisher, new type of story. The Books of the Chimera are episodic adventures with continuing threads, rather than a single epic story told in multi-volume set. After we signed the contract for the Chimera books, the publisher asked if I would consider a pseudonym. It gave them the opportunity to promote the Chimera as a debut for industry purposes such as expanding my audience, while leaving the identity open (not a secret), so my current readers could find me. Their proposal made sense and I agreed. Hopefully, Carol Berg will be bringing more stories to life along the way as well.
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Let’s discuss a character who is an artist too: Lucian de Remeni-Masson (Dust and Light and Ash and Silver). Can you describe how he sketches souls?

Lucian is specifically a portrait artist. At a sitting, Lucian observes his subject—not only physiognomy, but movements, attitudes, speech, posture, and emotions. He begins sketching on paper — line, light, and shadow — while simultaneously building the person’s image in his mind. As he works, he uses these sensory connections with the subject to ignite his magic, which shifts that image in his head into what he calls a true image that will linger in his mind for a very long time. In turn, this true image guides his fingers to refine the sketch into a full portrait. By the time he is finished with the portrait, his magic has imbued that portrait with truth, so that it can be used to identify that person inerrantly. Of course, sometimes people don’t want to see the truth of themselves. Uh oh. When Lucian is contracted to draw portraits of the dead so that they can be identified, the only sensory connections he can make with his subject are those of his eyes and his hand. He has to dig deeper into himself and the magic to create that internal image that enables him to draw truth. And the results are very interesting.

Do you find any fiction beautiful? If so, what made it so?

Absolutely. In fact, I would call most of my all-time favorite books beautiful. Example? Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer. The vivid, believable characters. The language that creates perfectly individual voices for the protagonists, as well as creating the real world version of a fairy tale. The books draws you into the emotional nuances of a man cursed to answer any question with the truth — not a simple prospect at all, because sometimes we tell lies in order to give comfort, or we avoid or obfuscate to protect the questioner. True Thomas doesn’t have that luxury. For something completely different… I thought Christina Henry’s Alice was beautiful fiction. A fractured world from the viewpoint of a woman who wakes up in a mental hospital, and a fantastic, sometimes grotesque city can be beautiful in the way a painting by Mondrian or Hieronymous Bosch can be as beautiful as a Renoir. Again it was the way the author used language and nuance to create the vivid characters of Alice and her Hatter, and an adventure you were never quite certain was real. But a book doesn’t have to be a fairytale retelling in order to be beautiful. Dick Francis’s mysteries are beautiful in the way he could take three sentences to evoke the feeling of Cheltenham Racetrack on the damp, cool afternoon of the biggest horse race of the year. Three more will tell you everything you need to know about his latest detective. And then you are off on a non-stop adventure. It’s all magic.
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You’ve obviously mastered first-person perspective. Is that your natural voice or a strategic choice?

I wrote for a number of years for my own enjoyment before imagining anyone would ever be interested in reading any of it. My first few attempts were in first -person because they grew from a series of letters a friend and I were writing to each other in character. That was fun (and some very awful writing no one will ever see). Once that was finished, I started something new, this time in third-person. It took me a while trying to figure out why the new story just wasn’t working in the way the admittedly awkward first books did. One problem was that I felt like the story was taking place at arm’s length. So I tried switching to first-person – essentially went through and replaced “she” with “I” and so forth. What resulted was ridiculous. The narrative was stiff as a board. It was at that point that I realized that almost every one of my favorite books—whether fantasy, mystery, historical, or spy thriller — was written in the first-person. First-person just came more naturally, especially as my writing matured and I figured out how to go deeper into my characters. Turned out that the kind of stories I wanted to write were all told through this personal lens, and first-person just fits.

You describe your writing process as being “organic” (not a pantser per se). What does that mean?

To me, the word “pantser” implies that you sit down with a blank page with no end in mind except the end of the book. Instead of that, I start with a seed: a character, a setting, and a destination in mind. I need to get the slave back to the prince’s house. I need to get Portier into the king’s service to investigate a murder. I need Anne to see where her sister was found dead. Whatever. Then I start writing. As I write I set the event in motion and think – at that moment – how does this character react to this event? What does that reaction tell me about that character? Who else is there and why? As I write the scene, I decide what else I need to include in this setting to make the scene more sensory. More vivid. And then, how do those details inform the world that includes the setting? Etc. Etc. That isn’t flying by the seat of your pants. That is growing new things from known things.

The sequel to An Illusion of Thieves, A Conjuring of Assassins, is due out Feb 2020. What illusions can we expect?

Each of my little cadre of sorcerer/spies has a unique talent. Because sorcery has been mostly exterminated in the Costa Drago, they’ve no idea of the possibilities or varieties of magic in the world. It’s also very dangerous to experiment. But in the short timespan since the events of Illusion, they’ve tried a few things. Rather than channeling their power through the particular shape of their talents, they’ve had some success drawing on the raw power itself to do a few things. Sort of like using white gas to start your campfire or to clean the sap off your boots, rather than simply pumping it through the campstove for a single purpose. This enables the possibility of everyone pouring their “white gas” into the single purpose…. hmmm, does that work? The biggest revelation comes though when they encounter someone who is talented in entirely different ways. Any more would be telling!

Previous Black Gate interviews on “Art & Beauty in Weird Fantasy”:


S.E. Lindberg resides near Cincinnati, Ohio working as a microscopist by day. Two decades of practicing chemistry, combined with a passion for the Sword & Sorcery genre, spurs him to write adventure fictionalizing the alchemical humors (under the banner “Dyscrasia Fiction”). With Perseid Press, he writes weird tales in the same vein (Heroika and Heroes in Hell series). He co-moderates the Sword & Sorcery group on Goodreads, and invites all to participate. He enjoys studying Aikido and creates all sorts of fine art in the family workshop. Touch base via Face

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sebastian A. Jones - Interview by SE

Intro: It is not intuitive to seek beauty in art deemed grotesque/weird, but most authors who produce horror/fantasy actually are usually (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven my strange muses. This interview series engages contemporary authors & artists on the theme of “Art & Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction.” Previously we cornered weird fantasy authors like John Fultz, Janeen Webb, Aliya Whiteley, and Richard Lee Byers. Recently we heard from the legendary author and editor of weird fiction, Darrell Schweitzer!


This round we corner Sebastian A. Jones: Author, actor, and teacher, Sebastian A. Jones grew up in England and moved to America at the age of eighteen where he founded MVP Records releasing albums that included James Brown, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday. In 2008 he founded Stranger Comics and Stranger Kids. Sebastian has written children's books including Pinata and co-created the I Am Book Series with Garcelle Beauvais including titles I Am Mixed and I Am Living in 2 Homes. Under Stranger's dark fantasy line Asunda, he has received critical praise for his written work on The Untamed: A Sinner's Prayer,  Dusu: Path of the Ancient, and Niobe: She is Life, which was coauthored by Amandla Stenberg.

Niobe Pathfinder V1 (1)

Note that the Asunda, the world of Niobe, is being realized with Pathfinder for RPG lovers. Check out the recent Paizo interview for more

 Is Niobe “Life” or is she “Death”?

Niobe returns to reclaim her throne in 3 tales. Get the Erathune Hardcover, She is Death #1 & #2, and the vampire epic, Essessa #1! Another Kickstarter brings omnibus versions of Niobe to life. Fill us in on the status and long term vision of Niobe and Asunda.

SAJ: The status is we are in the midst of another kickstarter campaign where folks can get all of the new stuff in Niobe’s world of Asunda (and the old stuff too). We first planted Niobe in the original story THE UNTAMED: A Sinner’s Prayer, where we followed a man, the Stranger, who had returned from purgatory to exact vengeance on the seven souls that murdered him and his family. He meets Niobe, the only light in the sinner’s Town of Oasis. She offers him a chance at salvation. But when he discovers she is the seventh soul, and the devil had planned the whole thing, the Stranger has a choice to make: Does he kill her and free his family, or let her live and save the world, as Niobe is destined to bind nations against the devil.

ESS001 COV Hyung PreviewAfter The Untamed we saw Niobe in other tales including her own title NIOBE: She is Life and now She is Death. She also appears in ERATHUNE with other heroes, the Macgrom (Dwarf) Buxton Stonebeard, and Morkai (Silver Elf) assassin Skarlok Two Hearts. She also guest stars in ESSESSA: The Fallen, a dark vampire tale of Niobe’s nemesis a thousand years before the main and current timeline. My vision for Niobe is for us to follow her throughout the world of Asunda and discover new lands and tales with her, as she grows into the Joan of Arc meets Luke Skywalker badass savior she is destined to be. In the future we will have NIOBE: She is Spirit and eventually She is God.

Beyond the comics, I am hopeful Niobe will transcend all media and appear in games and on the screen. Viola Davis honored us with this quote from her foreword in the hardcover, “We all have a Niobe inside ourselves, and it’s time to hear her roar.”

SE: In the “Spilling Guts” Appendix of the Untamed: Sinner’s Prayer compilation, your interview reveals that Asunda was primarily your creation but it evolved over twenty years and has involved many artists.  As author, did you ever draw/sketch (i.e., not write) anything for this world?  If so, can we share an image? Please share your insights working with graphic artists as they depict “your” world.

SAJ: I have done loads of sketches and none of them good! I also created the designs for the magic and spirit runes that readers can check out on the items wielded or worn by our characters in the comics. All good fun for gamers and campaign builders.
The artist who has been a catalyst in the world of Asunda is Darrell May. I consider him a cocreator as he not only translates effortlessly what is in my brain, he improves upon the vision. Over several years now he has created many of the most important landscapes, characters, and monsters that we sometimes build stories around. In fact, the title Erathune was born from a game we played in where Darrell was the dungeon master.
Generally, what we do is: I write the script > My brilliant Editor in Chief polishes it > Darrell does all of the concept art and all of the layouts >  the artist draws and paints based on the aforementioned > Joshua letters it > multiple screaming matches and revisions > off to the printer.

Here are some layouts by Darrell and the final results by Peter Bergting for The Untamed and Ashley A. Woods for Niobe: She is Life.

Beautiful Weird Art, Balancing Disparate Content:

SE: The Niobe and Untamed series balance “coming of age” YA appropriate stories with vivid, adult-worthy content. They also exhibit a splendid variety of beautiful empresses and heroines (i.e., the 2018 Calendar for Asunda is portfolio mainly of beautiful women). Any tips for other artists for designing art that is beautiful yet intense?
SAJ: Embrace the uncomfortable. Artists should step out of their comfort zones and explore all areas of art and other mediums. Artists should write, writers should draw, and everyone should listen to music that has grit, beauty, and gravitas. Photographers and filmmakers are also a great resource, where master storytellers capture moments that stay with us. When I wrote THE UNTAMED I listened to Aaron Copland and Gorecki and watched a lot of Spaghetti Westerns and Samurai films.
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Niobe’s Beauty?


SE: One could argue that Niobe is a nontraditional heroine for the dark fantasy genre. She is introduced in Sinner’s Prayer as a young girl but has her own line of comics for her coming of age.  Can you comment on Niobe’s own beauty? How did she evolve from idea to character over the years?

SAJ: Niobe has been with me for a long time, since I was a teenager. She was a character that was born out of my own hopes and ambitions for a better world. Seems a bit naïve perhaps, but I poured all of my vulnerabilities and desires into this character who started to roam the fantasy world I was creating. 

The more I grew, she grew with me, and soon she reflected my own light and darkness, which would come to represent the duality I was struggling with. She is mixed (like me) but she is also half angel, half demon, which was to represent the inner conflict everyone can relate to. By the time Stranger Comics was formed, I thought I had a fairly clear image of Niobe. By the time I wrote her own story with Amandla Stenberg, her character arc had blossomed into something powerful. We will witness the rise of a young woman, struggling with the weight of the world on her winged shoulders, but will conquer the battle of obligation vs. adventure and be a beacon for us all.

Now she is a movement. And in her – young people and old alike – can be the hero in their own story. All they have to do is pick up the sword.

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SE: Your Amazon Author Page features eclectic works.  Your Asunda series alone may represent you as an author fascinated with dark myths, albeit ones presented with beauty.  But that is not only the case. Via Stranger Comics, you are also making/marketing children faerie tales (i.e., “I am Mixed”). Indeed in 2008 you founded Stranger Comics and Stranger Kids, which would appear to have divergent markets/audiences & muses. Are there similar motivations driving Stranger Comics & Kids?

SAJ: I am motivated by a great many things, all of which trickle into what we create both at Stranger Comics and Kids. Good story with resonance that connects on an emotional level is everything. Each tale must be autentic to what it is trying to achieve. We cannot do things because things are a current hashtag trending just to make a quick buck. This is soulless, transient, and transparent. And the audience always sees through it.

I like to plant seeds within our comics and children’s books, for readers to stumble or search for hidden messages that can both relate to the story and at times reflect issues we face in our own world.
I believe that representation matters. On all levels, as we swim the murky waters of today’s social and political landscape. Hence our kid’s book I AM LIVING IN 2 HOMES was dedicated to kiddos who navigate the complexities of separation and divorce.

And despite all the serious stuff, I am still a kid at heart who like to have fun, a gamer, a dreamer, who wants to escape into fantasy worlds – which is probably why we partnered with Paizo to create Pathfinder roleplaying games for NIOBE: She is Life and created a Piñata making supplement in the back of the same titled children’s book.

Niobe (or Sebastian) in Film?

SE: Andrew Cosby’s introduction and BleedingCool.com indicate a feature film for Untamed is in the works. Do tell more! Seems like it may be (or be inspired by) previous screenplays written by you, and that it will depict Niobe (to be played by Amandla Stenberg who is known for playing Rue in Hunger Games). You have film credits for working in a psychological horror game called Hektor. If Asunda comes to a screen, will you be in it?

SAJ: I cannot say too much about the movie and TV stuff at the moment, as it is a delicate dance, but I am confident it will all happen in the way it is meant to. I would love to be in it, but it is not necessary. Above all, any film or show must reflect the work and the vision we have spent years nurturing.  The fans deserve it.

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Musical Muses:

SE: If not acting, you hinted at creating the score for the movie. Having founded MVP records, music certainly inspires you. In Sinner’s Prayer, there is an undercurrent of music that begs for explanation: the prologue has a few stanzas and there is the music played during a climatic confrontation. Can you clarify how music inspires you? Any connections between creating song and prose?

SAJ: Music feeds me perhaps more than anything else. It is a marriage of movement and the still moments in between. For music to inspire, it must have a spirit to make me want to fight, f**k, or fall in love. Anything else is like a formulaic snapchat fliter that deadens the soul… and puts us on automatic robot mode. I can’t mess with that.

Beauty in dark art:

SE: Do you see Beauty in your dark work? Any tips on how to interpret or create art that is “dark” yet “attractive”?

SAJ: I find the darkness a beautiful comfort, but I am not sure I see beauty in my own work. I am honored that readers seem to enjoy the stories and of course, the incredible art.
My tips are: Do not compromise and dare to be vulnerable. You get your feelings hurt now and again by those who will judge, and people will rip you off… But as long as you are true to your vision and your own truth, your soul will be fed.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Darrell Schweitzer - Interview by SE

SE Lindberg Intro: It is not intuitive to seek beauty in art deemed grotesque/weird, but most authors who produce horror/fantasy actually are usually (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven my strange muses.  This interview series engages contemporary authors & artists on the theme of "Art & Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction."  Recently we cornered weird fantasy authors like John R. Fultz, Janeen Webb, Aliya Whiteley, and Richard Lee ByersToday we hear from the legendary author and editor of weird fiction, Darrell Schweitzer!

Darrell Schweitzer is an American writer, editor, and essayist in the field of speculative fiction. Much of his focus has been on dark fantasy and horror, although he does also work in science fiction and fantasy. Schweitzer is also a prolific writer of literary criticism and editor of collections of essays on various writers within his preferred genres. Together with his editorial colleagues Schweitzer won the 1992 World Fantasy Award special award in the professional category for Weird Tales. His poem Remembering the Future won the 2006 Asimov's Science Fiction's Readers' Award for best poem. His novels include The White Isle, The Shattered Goddess, The Mask of the Sorcerer, and The Dragon House. His most recent story collection is the explicitly Lovecraftian Awaiting Strange Gods published by Fedogan & Bremer. He has also been known to lead the choir at Cthulhu Prayer Breakfasts, where his The Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir is used. He has published books about H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Lord Dunsany.

SEL: What Beauty is there in horror and sadness? Edgar Allen Poe subscribed to evoking melancholy to stimulate 'Beauty'.  In his 1846 “Philosophy of Composition”, Poe revealed his views on experiential beauty by detailing the deliberate construction of his poem The Raven: “Regarding then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation-and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.  Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones. In “Windows of the Imagination” you interview Poe, through dubious means. So we must turn the tables. Paraphrasing from you, “Which do you prefer writing [poems for Beauty, or tales for Terror]?” More broadly, how do you define Beauty in art/fiction that appears to be repulsive (weird/horror/melancholy)?

DS:
If I am to make a guess in the case of Poe (who, being dead, was not as entirely revealing as you might want in my interview with him), the beauty of horror does indeed have to do with sadness and loss. It is a reflection on the inevitable passing away of all things. Poe was the guy who said that the most poetical subject in the world is the death of a beautiful woman, and I don’t think he was into necrophilia. You can see this in his life. He knew his wife was dying. Various other beloved figures in his life kept dying on him. He knew that his own stay on this mortal coil was always tenuous.

SEL:   Do you find beauty in your weird fiction? Dissect an example. 
DS: This seems a little pretentious. It is a “look how great I am” question. The time-loops & their links to innocence and youth in “The Sorcerer Evoragdu”? The dancing resurrected goddess at the end of The Shattered Goddess? The strange redemption at the end of “On the Last Night of the Festival of the Dead”?

SEL: What scares you? Is it beautiful?
DS: I think we are all scared of death and the loss of identity or mental acuity. In real life, it is NOT beautiful. There is no “City of the Singing Flame” in the mundane world.

SEL: Art vs. the Artist: Is there a character that you most empathize with or reflects you (i.e., Julian the Apostate or Sekenre the Sorcerer)?
DS: I am neither of these persons. Julian the Apostate (the knight, not the emperor) is a lost soul precisely because he still has his faith. If you do not believe in God and the Devil, you do not fear them. Sekenre the sorcerer is the kid that never grows up, and always feels left out of normal society. There are some advantages to this, such as long life, but I think his existence involves much loneliness and suffering. I think of him as a cross between Joseph Curwen and Peter Pan. His agenda, however, is not, unlike Curwen’s, evil. He has expressed an intention to survive until the end of time and demand of the gods the reason for the world’s pain.

Have I ever written myself into a story? Not really. I can see how, if I had not somehow managed to face the world, I could have ended up like the character in “Jason, Come Home,” but he is a very sad and unfulfilled fellow, is he not? There is a little of me in the comic artist in “Pennies from Hell,” but this is caricature. Also, that other guy draws better than I do. I do pick up pennies off the street, but not for purposes of occult divination. After a certain age you do it because you STILL CAN. Also, I am superstitious. I believe it is bad luck to leave money lying around when I could have it.

SEL: Regarding other, Dark Arts: Clark Ashton Smith, whose soul or muses seem to have corrupted your own, was a poet, illustrator, and sculptor. Do you practice other arts? If so can we share them (i.e., images of fine or graphic art) or mp3s/videos (of music). Likewise, can you discuss how art can from one medium can inform/inspire another? 
DS: I have been known to draw cartoons. I suppose with some art training I could be mediocre. There is some talent there, but I think that as a cartoonist I am a pretty good gag writer. See attached. 


Art by Darrell Schweitzer [Sidebar: Wilbur Whateley is a character in Lovecraft’s 1923 The Dunwich Horror]
SEL: Cadence in fiction. In a 1930 letter to Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith described his strategy of using aesthetics to heighten the reading experience of his weird works: “My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation. You attain a black magic, perhaps unconsciously, in your pursuit of corroborative detail and verisimilitude. But I fear that I don't always attain verisimilitude in my pursuit of magic! However, I sometimes suspect that the wholly unconscious elements in writing (or other art) are by far the most important.” What tips or tricks can you reveal about delivering the right cadence to affect beauty or horror? 
DS: I have a theory that some of the best and most “poetic” prose writers – Lovecraft or Dunsany for instance – have the impulse to write poetry but not quite enough talent. So it is sublimated into their prose. Lovecraft held that the rhythm or cadence was the most important aspect of prose. Indeed, prose is for the ear, to be read aloud. The ultimate example may be the last few lines of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” which is both hideous and exquisite at the same time. Poe of course had the full poetic talent, but also could do it in prose.

SEL: Unpublished Conan and Inspiration: What Makes A Genuine Muse (inspired by your essay “My Career As A Hack Writer” in the collection Windows of the Imagination)? Many do not know that you wrote Conan the Deliverer (not a midwife, but perhaps a milkman you jest in your essay) which was never published. It was to be the “definitive Stygian novel.” I’m not sure of the chronology, but you certainly wrote some beautiful-weird-adventure with Egyptian (a.k.a. Stygian) influences (Mask of the Sorcerer and Sekenre) and proved yourself capable of damn good heroic tales (We Are All Legends). On the surface, having you script Conan the Deliverer sounds awesome. But you reveal that the script was perfect, and it was because of the artistic inspiration (or lack thereof). Please explain more. What makes a quality muse?
DS: A quality muse is one that inspires you to create works of genius all the time. One can only wish to have one … The Mask of the Sorcerer was indeed written on the rebound from the failed Conan novel. I simply let go of all the restrictions of trying to write a Conan novel, the first of which was to dispense with the character of Conan or anyone like him. My Conan novel did indeed deal with a descent into the Stygian afterworld, but the details are very different. I have to admit that this many years later, I do not remember Conan the Deliverer very clearly. That may be a sign that it was not, ultimately, very successful. Tor Books still owns it. They paid for it. They could publish it if they like. It used to be that about every five or ten years I would mention this to someone from Tor and they would say, “Oh, I never knew this existed,” and I would send a copy to them, and then they would lose it again and a few years later the subject would come up again. The last time this happened, I photocopied it for them and they did not bother to reply.

SEL: You have a B.S. in geography and an M.A. in English; has the geography ever served your writing? If not your degree, then perhaps the geography of your person [I was honored to listen to you read “Girl in the attic” the World Fantasy Convention 2016, a story that was published in Black Wings VI S. T. Joshi.  I recall the imagery of the Pocono ridge lines pretty well.]  Was this inspired by time spent in PA? Actually, this line of interrogation reminds me of my favorite CAS tale, “Genius Loci”. How does “place” affect one’s art?
DS: It does make me a little more aware of other places, but then so does collecting stamps. I am not one of those Americans who has only heard of a country when we have gone to war with it. I know where Kazakhstan is. Otherwise my getting a degree in Geography was a naïve attempt to do something practical so I could make a living while writing. But as with all the sciences, I could not proceed very far because I couldn’t do the math.

The Pocono ridge lines in the stories are inspired by long drives to Niagara Falls. I used to be a regular at Eeriecon, and I drove up that way alone many times after my wife stopped doing. You do notice on such trips how the familiar and safe world is only along the roadway, and eldritch rites or hideous murders could be taking place a half a mile away into the forest and no one might ever know. That whole landscape has inspired the Chorazin series of stories, of which “The Girl in the Attic,” and also my YA novel The Dragon House. Chorazin is located in the “flyover” part of north, central Pennsylvania, which is pretty blank on the map. Go to the Poconos, turn left, and go beyond any of the towns or resorts, and there is … what? Any large state in America holds such mystery. It is quite different from Europe, particularly Britain, where if there is a clump of more than two or three trees, it probably has a name, a hereditary forester, and a record in the Domesday Book. We have a lot of empty land.

The landscape of Arizona and the area around the Grand Canyon inspired my “Howling in the Dark.” So, yes, I do respond to landscapes. In the southwest there is vastness of both landscape and sky, and the realization that everything around you is also mutable. An Arizona landscape may be dry, but it is shaped almost entirely by water. You can also look out over the Grand Canyon and realize that among those hundreds of spires you can see are places where, very likely, no human being has ever been, so if Lovecraft’s Great Race of Yith is still hiding on one of them, as long as they don’t shoot off fireworks or play their boom boxes too loudly, we might never know.

SEL: Any current or future endeavor we can pitch?
DS: Latest novel is The Dragon House (Wildside). Latest collection is Awaiting Strange Gods (Fedogan & Bremer). PS Publishing will publish a Best of DS in two volumes next year. I am also working on two anthologies for them, The Mountains of Madness Revealed and Shadows Out of Time. My most recent anthology (for PS) was Tales from the Miskatonic University Library co-edited with John Ashmead.

SEL: Any new callings from the Church of Dagon?
DS: Funny you should ask. The spirit moved me to testify at the last Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast at Necronomicon 2017. I spoke briefly on the fact that the Esoteric Order of Dagon is the only nihilistic doomsday cult with a positive message. The text of my remarks was published in Audient Void magazine recently (No. 5), and will be used as a kind of preface for the second volume of The Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal. I write a new hymn for every prayer breakfast. Last time it was “Great Old Ones” to the tune of “Kumbaya.” There are now four uncollected hymns. I need to write three or four more, and I can have another booklet. I don’t just want to do a revised, expanded version, because that would render the old one obsolete and I want to go on selling it too. It is good cultist relations too. No one wants to be told that what I sold you last year is now out of date, so you have to buy a new one. I want your money, but I’d rather let you keep the value of your previous investment while I empty your wallet with the new one. So, I hope to have Volume II available at Necronomicon 2019. Come and sing along!

Partly squamously, partly rugosely, Darrell Schweitzer (a.k.a. “Brother Darrell” in the Esoteric Order of Dagon).


Sunday, August 12, 2018

Richard Lee Byers - Interview by SE

It is not intuitive to seek beauty in art deemed grotesque/weird, but most authors who produce horror/fantasy actually are usually (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven my strange muses.  These interviews engage contemporary authors & artists on the theme of  "Art &Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction".

Today we host author Richard Lee Byers, known for his Forgotten Realm contributions. He holds a Master's degree in Psychology and worked in an emergency psychiatric facility for over a decade, then left the mental health field to write. He is the author of more than fifteen books, including the lead book Dissolution (first book in the War of the Spider Queen series). Follow him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/rleebyers) and on Twitter (https://twitter.com/rleebyers).

Richard Lee Byers has recently participated in interviews with (a) GdM Grimdark Magazine #12 and (b) one focused on his recent Sword & Sorcery release: This Sword For Hire. Other recent releases include The Shadow Guide, which is another and rather darker heroic fantasy book, and TheHep Cats of Ulthar and Other Lovecraftian Tales. You can findthose and all his work on Amazon. Here we’ll focus on his approach to making horror pleasing, reveal his muses for creating beautiful dark fiction.

RICHARD LEE BYERS

1) SEL: Geographical Muses: One of my favorite Clark Ashton Smith tales is Genius Loci (1933) in which an artist, Amberville, turns mad when he paints a landscape that happens to embody the effigy of the land's deceased owner. Ghosts, and muses, can be geographic in nature. Noting that you were born in Columbus OH, which many Sword & Sorcery authors have roots (i.e., Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild ofAmerica members Andre Norton, John jakes, Roger Zelazny…), is there any evidence you have to support the crazy notion that Ohio localizes S&S muses? [sidebar: SEL has lived in OH since the 1980's and wishes for such a genius loci]. Perhaps you have memories of Ohio has haunted or inspired you? If not Ohio, another geography?

RLB: Alas, no. To the best of my recollection, there was nothing notably swashbuckling, barbaric, or eldritch about Ohio when I was growing up there. But I was fortunate enough to find a circle of friends who shared my enthusiasm for fantasy, SF, and horror. I imagine that played a role in my ending up as a genre writer.

2)  SEL: Early weird fiction masters like Edgar Allen Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft wrote letters and essays on “Beauty,” and they all generally espouse that beauty is not necessarily within art (i.e., a book or poem), but it is the conveyance of a feeling. Is there beauty in horror/weird fiction? Is there beauty in the repulsive?

RLB: Sometimes the repulsive is simply that. Realistic images of slaughter, torture, etc. sicken me as is, I imagine, the creator’s intention. But I think that when a horror story is based in the supernatural or some SF premise, there can be beauty even when something monstrous in being depicted. That’s because our curiosity, fascination, and sense of wonder are being engaged at the same time as our sense of dread.

3)  SEL: Do you have any “dark muses,” i.e., things that terrify/repulse you but you feel compelled to write about them.

RLB: I don’t know. Maybe not. I’m not fond of heights, and some of my more popular characters frequently fly the skies on griffon-back, but that experience isn’t portrayed in a way intended to scare. I am quite conscious of the dark side of human nature, our capacity for cruelty, selfishness, bigotry, fanaticism, etc., and many of my stories try to comment on that on one level or another, but my concern there is so general that I don’t know that it indicates I have a “dark muse.”

4)  SEL: You have a degree in psychology and worked in the mental health sector; how has this informed your writing (psychology of characters...and or readers expectations)?
RLB: I’ve been out of the mental health racket for a long time now, and today I seldom consciously think of personality theory and such when writing if, indeed, I ever did. But back in the day, I did interact with psychotic and sociopathic people on a daily basis, and I’m sure that getting a sense of who they were and how they viewed the world provided insights I still draw on when creating characters.

5)   SEL: Rorschach Test: What do you see? Ok, bear with me since this is question a game/gimmick of sorts. I wanted to reinforce your mental health background in a fun way. As a scientist who performs image analysis on data, I apply math on photos to quantify microstructure of materials. I took the liberty of processing two images you should be familiar with the content. Figured it would be interesting if you commented or interpreted this abstract version, and described what you see. There is no intention for any real psychological test, but figured this exercise may also reinforce your feelings on different perspectives.

RLB:
Image 1: Guys hanging around the brothel parlor waiting for their turns.
Image 2: The faces of somewhat thuggish-looking twin brothers.

[See bottom for the image reveal! Very funny]

6)  SEL: Do you practice other arts beyond writing? If so can we share them (i.e., images of fine or graphic art) or mp3s (of music). Guess you could mention martial arts too.

RLB: I don’t paint, play music, etc. I did put in 25 years as a fencer (epee, mainly, although I fenced foil and sabre, too) and still think of myself as a fencer even though I haven’t been inside a salle in a while. I miss it, but my right knee is showing the wear and tear of catching my weight and momentum through 25 years of lunging. So, sadly, the more prudent course may be for me to just keep going to the gym three days a week.

7a) SEL: Forgotten Realms (a):  Writing dark fantasy that is acceptable for the young adult crowd requires balance; how does you go about presenting scary settings/events in fun ways?

RLB: Honestly, no editor ever said to me that Realms fiction was targeted at the YA market, and I didn’t think of it that way. I did have an understanding that the publisher didn’t want writers to go all XXX-rated or splatterpunk, so I didn’t. When it came to generating a sense of dread, I don’t think it cramped my style all that much.

If you look at the masters of classic horror, they depicted terrifying and even grisly events, but they rarely if ever went on for pages with detailed descriptions of torture, dismemberment, and what have you. Appeals to the reader’s sense of the uncanny and the depiction of the viewpoint character’s emotional response to the strange and threatening saw them through. I guess I tried to achieve similar results via similar methods.

7b) SEL: Forgotten Realms (b): If you were a Zulkir (master magician) what discipline would you practice (Evocation, Transmutation, Abjuration, Enchantment Illusion, Conjuration Necromacy, Divination)? Perhaps you have an RPG character for this.
Now that I’m not doing Forgotten Realms fiction anymore, I haven’t looked at my reference material in a while. Is Evocation the one where you throw fireballs and lightning bolts? Whichever one that is, that’s my pick. I don’t see how you can go wrong throwing fireballs and lightning bolts.

I’ve run some magic users in RPGs over the years. I don’t think I ever had one who specialized in one particular school of magic. But you can bet they all threw fireballs and lightning bolts.

7c) SEL: Forgotten Realms (c): Can you comment on Szass Tam's artistic flare (the necromancer character in the Haunted Lands Trilogy) and/or comment on the muses you drew upon for him?

RLB: I don’t recall thinking of Szass Tam as an artist per se, but in the trilogy, his goal is to destroy the universe and replace it with something better. I guess that would be the ultimate act of artistic creation if you want to look at it that way.

As far as how I portrayed him, well, he was a preexisting character in Forgotten Realms lore, which indicated he was a wily skull-faced undead master of the dark arts. To that, I added the idea that his ultimate goal was the destroying and rebuilding the universe thing.

If you look at all that, a skeletal undead villain out to kill everybody, you realize the potential for cliché, one-dimensional characterization, and portraying a guy who comes across as a virtual parody of the evil mastermind archetype. I tried to avoid that by resolving that Szass would never feel what a standard arch-villain would feel or do what a standard arch-villian would do unless the plot required it. So in the story, he doesn’t gloat or fly into rages and isn’t needlessly cruel. Rather, he forms friendships and shows mercy. He’s someone you might enjoy hanging out with if you didn’t know he was planning to obliterate you and everyone and everything you cared about.

7d)  SEL: Forgotten Realms (d): Please comment on the creative process when writing for shared worlds (Forgotten Realms) vs your individual work (i.e., featuring your character Selden in This Sword For Hire or Billy Fox in Blind God's Bluff).

RLB: To my mind, there are two main differences:

The first is expressed in the adage (if I knew who originally said it, I’d give credit, but I don’t)  “Don’t blow up the moon.” That means people other than you are working in the shared world and the owner of the IP intends it to generate product and revenue for a long time to come, so you can’t tell a story that would mess things up for everybody else.

Such a story doesn’t have to involve blowing up the moon, sinking a continent, etc. The issue can be subtler than that. Many shared worlds are built around fundamental conflicts and mysteries. If you’re already a fan of the shared world, resolving one of those conflicts or solving one of those mysteries may be the first story that occurs to you and one you’d be thrilled to tell. But it’s one you probably can’t tell because doing so would close out a part of the franchise that people like and would otherwise generate future products.

Now, occasionally, you can tell a story like that if the IP owner has decided it’s time for the franchise to move on to a new phase in its history. I’ve done those world-changing epics a couple times in the Forgotten Realms. In my experience, if the publisher wants a story like that, they’ll ask a trusted writer with experience in the shared world to write it. You won’t get such a gig if you’re a newcomer.

Now if you’re writing in your own universe, you can do anything you want anytime you want. Although if you’re writing a series, you too may want to be careful about writing something that’s apt to make future stories less interesting or maybe even superfluous altogether.

The second difference is that to do shared-world work, you need to be flexible. You could go to your editor with a great idea and be told, “Sorry, we already have an elf-centric book for this year” or “So-and-so is already going something set in the Red Kingdom.” If that turns out to be true, it won’t do you any good to argue or sulk. You just have to come up with a different idea.

Obviously, if you created the universe of the story and are the only one working there, you won’t have such a problem. I think, though, that it still behooves you to be open to feedback. You don’t want your editor to decide you’re a pain in the ass to work with.

Rorschach Image Sources:


Image (1) RLB’s “brothel line” is actually a tribute to his “Ape of the Day”, a long occurring tradition of RLB on Facebook. Follow him (or on twitter) and you’ll enjoy the flippant posting of “apes” in various media. Image is in public domain.

Image (2) RLB’s “thuggish brothers” is just an abstracted mirror-image of himself