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

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Sublime, Cruel Beauty, Interview with Jason Ray Carney

This interview appears in Black Gate (9/9/2021):

SUBLIME, CRUEL BEAUTY: AN INTERVIEW WITH JASON RAY CARNEY



 Jason Ray Carney (aka Ayolo)

Art & Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction

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 by strange muses. To help reveal divine mysteries passed through artists, this interview series engages contemporary authors on the theme of “Art & Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction.” Recent guests on Black Gate have included Darrell SchweitzerSebastian JonesCharles GramlichAnna Smith Spark, & Carol Berg. See the full list of interviews at the end of this post. 

This one features Jason Ray Carney who is rapidly becoming everpresent across Weird Fiction and Sword & Sorcery communities (in fact you can probably corner him in the Whetstone S&S Tavern (hosted on Discord)). By day, he is a Lecturer in Popular Literature at Christopher Newport University. He is the author of the academic book, Weird Tales of Modernity (McFarland), and the fantasy anthology, Rakefire and Other Stories (Pulp Hero Press, reviewed on Black Gate). He recently edited Savage Scrolls: Thrilling Tales of Sword and Sorcery for Pulp Hero Press and is an editor at The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies, for Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery and for Witch House Magazine: Amateur Magazine of Cosmic HorrorIncidentally, Jason Ray Carney has also contributed here at Black Gate with a post on Robert E. Howard's Bran Mak Morn character and musings on How Sword & Sorcery Brings Us Life.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Aesthetics of Sword & Sorcery: An Interview with Philip Emery

First published on Black Gate July 17th, 2021

This continues our interviews on "Beauty in Weird Fiction" with previous topics being:

Are you haunted, perhaps obsessed, with Sword & Sorcery?

Heroic fiction is infectious. Sometimes vicariously “being the hero” via reading is not enough to satisfy the call. Being compelled to write manifests next. Ghosts may be to blame. Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) is credited with originating the genre with his characters: Conan the Barbarian, King Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn; in a 1933 correspondence to his friend and contemporary author, Clark Ashton Smith, Howard explained his interaction with the muse that inspired his Conan yarns.

Monday, January 25, 2021

God, Darkness, & Wonder: An Interview with Byron Leavitt

 This post is synchronized with a simulcast on BlackGate.com (Jan 25, 2021 posting).

Art & Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction

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 by strange muses.  These interviews engage contemporary authors & artists on the theme of “Art & Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction.” Recent guests on Black Gate have included Darrell Schweitzer, Sebastian JonesCharles Gramlich, Anna Smith Spark, & Carol Berg. This one features Byron Leavitt, novelist and game-author for Diemension Games. 

Byron Leavitt is also the author of the bizarre children’s novel The Fish in Jonah’s Puddle (To Say Nothing of the Demon) and the non-fiction book Of Hope and Cancer: One Man’s Story of God, Darkness, and Wonder, as well as the story content for the board game Deep Madness and its accompanying book Shattered Seas (recently reviewed on BlackGate). Byron is currently working on the storybooks for the forthcoming Deep Madness prequel Dawn of Madness, a story-driven horror experience in a board game.

“Darkness. Light. Wonder. Beauty. God. Tentacles. Those who know me best would say that pretty well sums me up.” - Byron Leavitt

Interview Table of Contents/Links

  1. WHAT’S THE SCOOP WITH YOUR ICONIC FEDORA?
  2. BODY HORROR, MUTATIONS & CANCER
  3. FINDING BEAUTY IN DARK PLACES
  4. DO YOU THINK GOD ENJOYS HORROR?
  5. RELIGION IN WEIRD ART
  6. YOUR CHARACTERS
  7. WORKING ON A TEAM, IN A SHARED UNIVERSE
  8. WHAT SCARES YOU? IS IT BEAUTIFUL?
  9. OTHER DARK ARTS, YOUR DRAWINGS
  10. MOVIE INFLUENCES
  11. FUTURE WORKS

(1) WHAT’S THE SCOOP WITH YOUR ICONIC FEDORA? IS IT HIDING TENTACLES?

BL: Definitely. Actually, I never used to like hats. But then one of my characters, who I thought was a really cool guy, wore a fedora, so I decided maybe hats weren’t so bad. I bought a fedora on a trip and have been wearing them ever since. I suppose that’s an instance of life imitating art.

Dawn of Madness - Emily Hawkins Mutations

(2) BODY HORROR, MUTATIONS & CANCER

SE: You went into remission from recurring Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and a bone marrow transplant, which you discuss in your book Of Hope and Cancer. Considering that, and your penchant for mutating characters in Deep Madness (in which characters mutate into tentacled creatures) and Dawn of Madness (in which every character/wanderer has three alternate versions of his or herself; see inset images of Emily and Lynas’s malformations), we have to delve into how your condition affected your writing. Please tell us how your cancer experience shaped your art (nightmares)?

BL: That’s an excellent question! To be perfectly honest, though, I don’t think my experiences there influenced me that much. I know that’s a boring answer, but I was pretty weird before I got cancer. Plus, I really can’t take credit for a lot of the ideas in Deep and Dawn. Roger Ho, Cherry Li, and the Diemension Games team formed the basics for most of the characters before bringing them to me to flesh out.

I can think of one area that may have impacted me, though – or at least skewed me even further in a specific direction. I’ve always loved monsters and felt a strong connection to them, but I think my experience deepened those feelings. People tend to treat you differently when you have cancer (or likely any serious disease or condition). Or, rather, they don’t know how to treat you. You become diseased, unusual, and scary to them. You transform into an outsider, and others lose all sense of how to handle this “new you.” They don’t mean anything by it, and it’s not even necessarily a conscious action, but looking at you is just too close to staring at their own mortality. So, in a sense, you become a monster to them: a cautionary tale that is easiest to deal with if avoided, or a dark specter they know is real but which they want to put out of their minds. I think it’s very likely that this influenced me, drawing me even closer to empathizing with those on the fringes: the outsiders – and the monsters.

(3) FINDING BEAUTY IN DARK PLACES

SE: I post an excerpt from your book Of Hope and Cancer in which you describe finding beauty from places everyone else runs from. Given this, and your passion for horror, can you speak on the appeal of art that many may feel is repulsive? What joy do you get from playing in bloody rain?

Beauty in the Rain: Oftentimes when it begins to rain, I will decide it is time to go for a walk. I will put on my coat and my hat, and as everyone else flees indoors I will step out into the downpour and tumult to begin the trek down our long gravel driveway. I smell the freshly cleaned air. I hear the rain colliding with the leaves, the branches, the road. And I feel the beauty of something greater than me. I find myself steeping in awe, being consumed by wonder. … Don’t get me wrong: I know that the rain is wet and cold and at times even oppressive. I understand why people would want to avoid it. I even do myself sometimes. But I also think that by not stepping out into the rain, by not taking that chance of getting wet, we sometimes miss out on the beauty that is as fresh as a glistering raindrop on a flower.” - Byron Leavitt

BL: I have a dirty secret: my main goal is not to scare people with my writing. (Except for Dawn of Madness – though even that one has layers.) I am much more interested in taking readers to places they’ve never been and filling them with a sense of wonder and awe. Then, any other emotions or feelings accompanying those two sensations are a bonus that comes with the territory. I have heard other authors and creators who I respect say something like this as well. Junji Ito comes immediately to mind (who everyone should read whether they like manga or not.) In the realm of film, Guillermo del Toro has expressed similar sentiments. I think Lovecraft himself must have felt similarly to some degree, which is one reason why I believe his stories still resonate with people despite all the hang-ups and roadblocks that now exist between him and new readers. He took you to places you had never seen before. He stole your breath away first with the setting, the adventure, and the dazzling, wondrous “what if.” Then he crushed your lungs with the massive, incomprehensible otherworldliness of it all when you finally realized what was going on. This is the kind of horror that really gets me: the stuff that causes its reader to say, “Whoa…” before it makes her yelp, “GAH!” And if the two can be intertwined along the way, all the better. (The movie Annihilation is one of my favorites for this very reason.)

I am implacably drawn to awe. I feel like my life’s mission is, in a sense, to cultivate wonder. And I think these emotions are almost always tied to discovery, which very often plumbs life’s uncharted dark fringes. Exploring the unknown can be a truly exhilarating, life-changing (or affirming) experience. But it’s also one of the things that scare us the most. A massive chunk of horror revolves around the fear of the unknown and what exists in that nebulous, uncharted place – whether that place is the woods, the ocean, another planet, a long-forgotten temple, or just in the darkness itself. What exists beyond our solid, everyday walls of concrete and steel? What happens when you peel back the skin of what we perceive as reality and peer underneath? It’s very easy when exploring to find something absolutely breathtaking. But, at the very next moment, that same beautiful discovery can reveal its wild unearthly underbelly and send a thrill of terror shivering down your spine.

Dawn of Madness - Lynas Gershwin Priest Character

(4) DO YOU THINK GOD ENJOYS HORROR?

SE: You have written that you see God as “co-authoring” your destiny/fate. So it seems you have a spiritual god/muse who likes to write. Many may laugh at that, and it is funny I suppose, but many horror writers are not promoting violence or wishing fear on others.  So why would God want to write in the horror genre?

BL: Writing is a form of creation, and the Judeo-Christian Bible starts with God doing just that: creating. And I don’t personally think he was just forming what we would typically consider beautiful: He was fashioning the dark, squirmy things like the angler fish, the eel, and the spider. And I consider that a comforting thought. In fact, when I was growing up, the two things that made me think I wasn’t wholly deranged were deep-sea life and the book of Revelation from the Bible.

Some things are absolutely terrifying to us without being innately evil or devious in themselves: they’re just not a part of our framework or within our comfort zone. For example, the book of Revelation is chock full of uncanny, horrifying beings – and most of them are the good guys. Actually, the stuff in there (as well as in other places, like Isaiah and Ezekiel) is so extreme that some people think I’m borderline blasphemous when I discuss it with them. For instance, there are angelic beings (possibly the Seraphim or their relatives, though they aren’t explicitly named) who are entirely covered with eyes. As in, they have dozens (or hundreds) of eyes blinking all over their bodies and six wings. Plus, only one of them has a human face, and I’m not sure any of them has a human shape. Then there’s Jesus, who is depicted in several ways. One is as a lamb who has been cut open – who also happens to have seven eyes and seven horns. He takes and holds a scroll, too, making me think he must have hands. And it further seems likely to me that he must be standing on two legs as he opens and reads the sealed scroll. Then, in another place, he has white hair that glistens like snow, eyes that burn like flames, a face as bright as the sun, and a literal sword for a tongue. He holds seven burning stars in his hand and, when he speaks, his voice is as loud and layered as multiple rivers rushing at once. “Meek and mild” my butt.

To actually answer your question, though, I don’t know that God so much likes to write in horror as that he just specializes in the strange and unexpected. Having said that, I have often felt like watching horror has brought me closer to God, or at least made me consider the world in a different way. I know that sounds patently ridiculous, but hear me out. Horror is, in my opinion, the genre most likely to step beyond the bounds of normalcy – even more so than science fiction or fantasy (though both of those can and do.) And it’s outside of that space where I am most likely to experience something beyond myself. So, I am more likely to see or consider something that makes me look at things in a different way while watching horror. (This is not always the case, obviously, and it might not even be the truth most of the time. No one has ever had an epiphany while watching a Jason movie, for instance.) It also doesn’t hurt that many horror movies have what I would call a spiritual component. Some are more blatant – and more of a gut punch – than others. The Conjuring films come immediately to mind, and so does The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Or the indie movie Ink. Or the Japanese picture Re-Cycle. Even The Exorcist itself (and certainly The Excorcist TV show.) There’s also the Showtime show Penny Dreadful. Alternatively, in books, many of Stephen King’s works have a spiritual aspect, such as The Stand. I’m not saying these things are common in horror, but they may be more common than in any other genre right now.

Light is most discernable in darkness. So, in my mind, the darkest genre can be a wonderful place to find (or create) sparks of light. I guess I’ve always just seen “wondrous” and “terrifying” as siblings, or two sides of the same coin – much like light and dark. And I can easily draw one out of the other. Furthermore, if the Bible is to be believed, then so can God: “…Darkness was over the face of the deep… And God said, ‘Let there be light.’”

(5) RELIGION IN WEIRD ART

SE: Sticking with the religion theme. Your website has a tab for Weird Church that is awaiting content, and Shattered Seas features an Irish priest with Connor Durham...and Dawn of Madness will feature Lynas! Please discuss how/why you feature religion in your work?

BL: Religion is a huge part of me, and so is weirdness. I felt for a long time like I was living in two worlds: in one I had to fit in a square hole, and in the other I was pushed into a round one. The problem is, I’m more of an octopus shape. Octopuses are good at squeezing into a variety of spaces, but every once in a while they just want to be an octopus. So, Weird Church is going to be my attempt to unite those two worlds. A lot of my writing, too, is really me trying to merge those two realms, or at least play in both at once. I don’t think they have to be exclusive domains. In fact, I think in many ways they are surprisingly complimentary.

Lynas actually was a creation of the team, so I can’t take credit for him. Connor, however, is entirely mine. Whether I create them or not, though, I usually seem to find anchor characters in most projects I work on who can kind of ground me in whatever I’m doing. Connor was that character in Shattered Seas for me. Samuel was that investigator in the main Deep Madness game. And Lynas is probably that wanderer in Dawn of Madness. Beyond that, though, I often try to interweve themes into my stories like redemption and sacrifice, or things that will offer glimmers of light in the claustrophobic emptiness. Those foundational Judeo-Christian bedrocks are what often makes a character and a story compelling to me. That doesn’t mean things always go well: actually, it seems like they normally go pretty terribly. But having those flickers of hope in the darkness and seeing how the characters respond to adversity is, for me at least, what gives the work a depth it would otherwise lack.

There is a mystery, a sacredness, that I feel is missing from our world today. We have lost that weighty sense of Other in our largely empty materialistic lives. I find the wonder, the beauty, we have lost in religion and myth. That isn’t to say I discount science or anything of the like: I love studying science. But I do have a major problem with materialism. It is very hard for something to nourish the soul when it doesn’t believe or acknowledge that the soul exists. I believe religion and the sacred fill that cavernous void left by the yawning emptiness of our materialistic worldviews.  

(6) YOUR CHARACTERS

SE: Which character do you identify most with? The writer in Dawn of Madness?  Connor Durham or Lucas Kane from Shattered Seas? And I need to learn more about Dr. William West who emerges as the most interesting non-playable character and even antagonist in Shattered Seas, the core Deep Madness story and its Oracle’s Betrayal expansion. He obviously resonates with you. Tell us about him.

BL: There’s a little bit of me in most of my characters, and I love just about all of them for different reasons. My favorite for Shattered Seas is probably Connor Durham, though Charles Ryan (the closest I’ll likely ever come to combining Jason Momoa and a Bioshock Big Daddy) is definitely up there, too. After them, probably Min Wang and Mitsuko Takenaka, and then maybe Regan Waite and William West.

William was a creation of the team (as were all of the Deep Madness investigators,) and they had the basic structure for him in place before I came along. But he’s definitely a fun character to play with. Roger Ho (Diemension’s lead designer/creative director/CEO/fearless leader) was a little surprised by how evil William ended up being in Shattered Seas, but he’s always been that level of monster in my mind. It’s always a kick playing with a character who is simultaneously brilliant, deranged, and deluded like William. It’s also fun playing with characters who are in more of a grey area, like Regan Waite. I don’t think I’ve really done more than scrape the surface with her. I’m honestly still not entirely sure if she’s good or evil, and I think that’s probably a good thing.

(7) WORKING ON A TEAM/SHARED UNIVERSE

SE: With Shattered Seas Leavitt extends the world created by the Diemension Game team (with designers Roger Ho, Cherry Li, Chauncey, and Yichuan Wang, whom Byron dedicated the book to… in addition to the KS backers).  How does the creative process work with the team (game designers, artists, writer/you, your backers)? Like, do you have any input on character design or creation, or just the story? Can we expect more novels associated with Diemension Games?

BL: Working with Roger, Cherry, and the gang is fantastic. It’s certainly the best experience I’ve had working on a team. Most of the time, the characters are created by Roger and Cherry and then sent to me to flesh out. I work closely with Roger to make sure the stories are in-line with their vision, and usually put a bit of my own spin on it. One barrier we have is that we live in different countries, so it can be difficult for us all to follow along with every step. But we manage.

As for if there will be more Diemension Games novels, I certainly hope so. We have a lot on our plate right now between Dawn of Madness and Celestial, but I would certainly love to dig deeper into our different worlds in the future if the chance presents itself.

(8) WHAT SCARES YOU? IS IT BEAUTIFUL?

BL: A number of things make me cringe or tense up, but I think the thing that actually scares me is probably the idea of oblivion: Specifically, the idea that, behind everything, there is ultimately nothing but true unending emptiness. I think it’s an easy thing to romanticize and treat as beautiful, and I’ve seen many people attempt to do it. But to me it’s not. By its very definition, it would be cold, empty, and void. It would be anti-being. The very idea of beauty is meaningless there, and so is everything else. I think this should scare every intellectually honest person, and if the nihility itself doesn’t then the lines of thought birthed from its implications certainly should.

(9) OTHER DARK ARTS: YOUR DRAWINGS

SE: Do you practice other arts other than writing (spellcasting counts)? 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?

BL: Ha! I don’t know that I’d call anything I’ve done “fine art.” I create a lot of different things, but the only one I would consider myself even halfway passable at is writing. What makes it even worse, perhaps, is that most of my work outside of writing has been the product of necessity. I don’t know, maybe that makes it more forgivable, but regardless, I’m definitely all about that guerilla DIY and duct tape.

Having said that, I do many things (even if not very many of them well.) I love creating in whatever form presents itself at the time. I’ve dabbled with art, mixed media, book design, web design, graphic design, sculpture, miniature painting, and other stuff. I sing, but I don’t have any instrument that I can say I’m particularly good at. I would love to get significantly better at many of these things I’ve mentioned. I guess time will tell if I succeed or not. Having said that, you asked, so here are a couple of sketches I made for my upcoming book The Fish in Jonah’s Puddle (To Say Nothing of the Demon). Like I said, they’re pretty mediocre. But hopefully the subject matter will at least be interesting.

As far as how different mediums can influence one another, I find that I’m an awful lot like a sponge. When I’m writing, I absorb stuff from wherever I can and then squeeze it back out into the story. Sometimes it’s from a board game miniature, or an art book, or a movie, or a video game. I can’t tell you how many items I ”sponged” for Shattered Seas, but there were a ton, including the video game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, a book of sketches used in Alien: Covenant, both the movie and the book Annihilation, the movies Silent Hill and Prometheus, bits and bobs from Guillermo del Toro, the news (part of it was written during the pandemic’s early days), and a bunch of miniatures (both Diemension Games stuff and others.) Furthermore, I’m constantly listening to music when I’m writing. Interestingly, when I don’t listen to music, my output is almost always significantly lower than when I am. It’s almost like I must have something going in to get something out. I know there are some writers who have to work in utter quiet. I am not one of those writers. In fact, I almost can’t do it.

(10) MOVIE INFLUENCES

SE: Reading Shattered Seas, there is a scene that evoked the 1980 Superman 2 movie with Christopher Reeve. The villains (General Zod, Ursa and Non) were banished from Krypton into a 2D plane called the Phantom Zone. Also, the exhuming of the mysterious, submerged Sphere in Deep Madness reminded me of the 1987 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s “Sphere.” How have movies affected your work?

BL: Oh, man. I almost can’t quantify to what degree movies have influenced my work. They’re huge for me – and for the rest of the Diemension Games team, too. I don’t know that anyone actually has an accurate count of the number of references and influences there are in the Deep Madness board game. I think we regretted some of them later on, specifically when we decided we wanted to go in a more serious direction and expand the game’s setting into its own universe. But it doesn’t change the fact that those influences are all over the place.

Personally, I’m influenced immensely by a variety of directors and films. My favorite director is Guillermo del Toro, not just for his films but also for his take on monsters and some of his views on life and art. I think of him as a kindred spirit in many ways. I’m also influenced by many other directors and films. I love Darren Aronofsky, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, and anyone or anything that is weird and awesome. The list of movies that have inspired me is too long to write down for this interview.

As for Sphere, that reference is certainly intentional, though I’ve tried to steer us away from straight-up mimicry of it. (Whether I’ve succeeded or not is up to others to decide.) Sadly, the Superman 2 similarity is purely coincidental, as I’ve never seen it.

1980 Superman 2 Movie Snapshot

(11) Future Works

Outside of Diemension Games, your website mentions a world of Alayaka, and has a tab for Weird Church. Do tell! Or perhaps stay in the Diemension Games scope and tell us about your part in Celestial or Twisted Fables.

BL: On the personal side, Weird Church is currently a little Facebook group I’m starting for those geeks, artists, nerds, and weirdos who also want to pursue God, wonder, weirdness, and something beyond ourselves. It’s not actually a church, but it is definitely weird. Apart from that, the next novel I’m going to release will be the previously mentioned The Fish in Jonah’s Puddle (To Say Nothing of the Demon), which is a very strange, quirky little book about a boy named Jonah and a talking salmon named Stuart who strike out across the dimensions to stop the demon responsible for eating Jonah’s parents. After that, I hope to release my epic novel Alayaka, which is kind of a cross between dark fantasy, steampunk, body horror, and The Chronicles of Narnia. (A lot of writers have that one book they’ve obsessed over for years, and Alayaka is that for me.) I also have a bunch of short stories I’d like to get out if I can, including one of my favorite stories called “The Dance of the Krakens.” We’ll see how all of that goes.

On the Diemension Games side, our big projects right now are Dawn of Madness and Celestial. Dawn of Madness is a story-driven horror game that we hope will actually scare people (which I’m writing a bunch of books for), and Celestial is an epic game for 1-2 players that I like to describe as a cross between Chinese mythology, cyberpunk, steampunk, Lovecraftian horror, and Game of Thrones. Twisted Fables is a smaller 2 or 4-player fighting game that features reimagined fairytale heroines such as Red Riding Hood the cybernetic assassin and Little Mermaid the harbinger of the Kraken. It’s currently being manufactured. We’re also hoping to expand on our first game, Deep Madness, in the near future.

If you’d like to learn more about Diemension Games’ projects, you can find us on our website at https://diemensiongames.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/diemensiongames. If you’d like to follow me specifically, then you can find me on my website at https://byronleavitt.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ByronCLeavitt. You can also email me at byron@diemensiongames.com. I’d love to hear from you.

Last of all, I just wanted to say thanks, Seth, for the chance to do this interview. It’s been a blast!

Thank go to you, Byron, for sharing!


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Interview: Making Dark Fantasy Accessible - Carol Berg

This article is simulcast on Black Gate.com
BergCate_IllusionOfThieves BergCate_2

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.
Berg-a-HeavenTree SongOfTheBeast

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).