Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A favorite long-lost interview

My terrific Czech editor, Martin Šust, interviewed me in 2010 before the release of The Red Wolf Conspiracy [Spiknutí Ryšavého vlka] in the Czech Republic. I enjoyed the interview a great deal and thought I should make it available in English sooner or later. Of course "sooner or later" matured into "later," but I still like this exchange. Czech readers: přeložit rozhovor je k dispozici zde. Below is the original English.

The Red Wolf Conspiracy is your first fantasy novel. Is this your very first work as well?

No, but it is my first published book. I have a literary novel called Conquistadors, set during the “Dirty War” in Argentina in the late-1970s. In its own way it’s as ambitious as the Chathrand Voyage series. I spent eight years on that novel, and a lot of time traveling in Argentina. It’s a book of immense personal importance to me as well, so I very much hope to see it published.

The most impressive parts of the book take place on board the Chathrand; how would you describe this ship to readers, and what inspired you to create it?

The Chathrand is both impossibly large and impossibly old: it is a giant, floating artifact of an earlier time in the world of Alifros, the sole surviving example of a shipbuilding art that’s been forgotten. Imagine a sailing ship the size on a World War II aircraft carrier. It has seven decks, five masts, and a crew of about eight hundred. But wizards as well as shipwrights helped to build the Chathrand, so rumours of enchantment and shreds of spells linger about it. The ship is also the jewel in the crown of a mighty empire, a floating symbol of their power and ambition.

I’ve been fascinated by ships and sailing for a very long time. But the precise inspiration for the Chathrand was strange. I was actually walking along a sea cliff in Argentina on a foggy morning, and imagined a huge sailing vessel racing towards destruction on the rocks. I don’t know why the image came, but I never forgot it, and in time that image grew into the Chathrand.  

The naval field is not very common in fantasy; was your goal to fill in the gap or is it rather a kind of story you personally like?

I do love sea stories. I was aware that naval fantasies were somewhat rare. Now I know why: the research I had to undertake was immense. I’m not a sailor, or a naval historian like the great Patrick O’Brian. I had a very steep hill to climb in educating myself about the mechanics of tall ships and the structure of life at sea. Another problem for writers is forced immobility. Sailing takes time; the great voyages of the early days of sail were measured in months or even years. I think this tends to push writers of seafaring novels into the direction of the epic (like Moby Dick, which itself is a fantasy novel of sorts) or simpler cutlass-and-mahem yarns like Pirates of the Caribbean. This is a long way of saying that I was excited by the challenges of scale, and that of taking familiar territory and making it new.

The main storyline of the book is not only the conspiracies, but also the personal tragedy of the young man Pazel Pathkendle. How would you describe the importance of this storyline?

Pazel loses his family and his country in a single afternoon, when a mighty empire invades and annexes his little nation. To avoid slavery himself, he’s forced to work as a serving-boy in the naval forces of the conquering empire, and the story picks up five years into this new, and terribly difficult, life.

Pazel’s situation is fundamental to the whole tone and dynamic of the series. He gives us a view of the Empire from both within and without, and his friendship—ultimately more than friendship—with the daughter of the very admiral who led the invasion complicates matters immensely. In this series, among many other things, I’m meditating on factionalism, racism and cultural power. All very powerful forces in this world, of course. And all of them linked to many tragedies like Pazel’s own.

The Red Wolf Conspiracy offers readers a thriller involution; however, at the end it comes out that the destiny of the whole world is in question. Do you have any intentions to substitute this plane for the further parts? For instance, by inclining to a more classical epic fantasy or travel novel?

Honestly I don’t think these books will ever quite fit in a single category, unless it was a huge hybrid category like “epic journey-psychological/philosophical-thriller”. But the scale is most definitely epic. More so than I originally planned for, in fact. In the second book, The Rats and the Ruling Sea, the characters literally sail off the map of the known world, into the great uncharted ocean of the South. And what they’re attempting is nothing less than a circumnavigation of the globe. We’ll see if they make it by the end of the story in Book IV.

I see an advantage in your book, when compared to other fantasy books, in the original approach to human races. Do the Ixchel have any mythological origin? Do you intend to further show the readers anything similar?

To the extent that my own imagination’s a product of my encounter with myth and other forms of storytelling, then certainly the ixchel are its offspring. But I did not base them on any specific creature. They grew as a natural compliment to the empire’s obsession with hugeness: tiny, secretive survivors within the cracks and crevasses of power, who still may affect the fate of the world, if only because they are so good at avoiding notice. And yes, in the sequels we meet with a number of new creatures, new intelligences. Exploring their encounters with humanity has been an indescribable joy.

The world of your novel is rather pragmatical. Is there any historical epoque that inspired you in terms of this pragmatism?

That’s a fascinating question. No, I didn’t have any one age in mind when dreaming up the world of Alifros. When I look at it now, with three of the four books written, I’d say it brings our nineteenth century in mind in terms of the moment of imperialism, and perhaps the eighteenth in terms of sheer giddy mercantilism.

But the most interesting characters are all fish out of water. I think every age has its drumbeat, its myopic master narrative, always ready to do violence to those who don’t march in lockstep. And every age has those who don’t believe in that narrative, who challenge it. These insurgent minds, it seems to me, are a major, permanent subject of the novelistic imagination. For that reason they always feel contemporary.

Czech readers have the chance to get to know your book for the first time now. If you should speak to them to make them buy the book, how would you do so?

Make them? Ha! Only dark wizards would reach for such power. My strategy is frankness. This is my story: I hope it speaks to you. It was in any case the one I had to to tell. There’s a great deal that’s thrilling and wild, a great deal that’s sober and thoughtful, and I felt every page in my heart. Those are the only books I read: the ones that seem to have been not just planned but unearthed, excavated, from a place deep inside. Novels are, I think, the best vehicles we have for going to such places. I hope you enjoy the trip.

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