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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Interview with James Enge (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official James Enge Website
Order “Blood of AmbroseHERE
Read FBC's review of "Blood of Ambrose" HERE


Mihir Wanchoo, our intrepid interviewer here at FBC had a chance of asking James Enge some questions about his debut novel "Blood of Ambrose" as well as about his creative work in general. Read his answers next including a superb introduction to each Morlock short story to date:


1. Can you tell us about yourself in some detail since this is your debut novel & esp. your title of “Fantasist” & whether you wish for any other titles as well?
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James: Well, I don’t have a rich biographical resume to draw on--I never drove a dynamite truck through a war-zone, or invented cold-fusion, or many of the things other writers mention with such becoming modesty in their bios. I was once, briefly, the worst breakfast waiter in the world. I confused waiting on tables with the Quest for Truth, and I would argue with the customers about what they’d ordered. This is not generally a way to score great tips.

I teach Latin and classics (Greek Myth, Roman Civilization, etc.) in my day job, where I was recently promoted to lecturer--essentially: permanent faculty, but without tenure. Possibly I would be shrewder not to mention this, because I know it leads some people to think of my fiction as something resembling homework they forgot to do. Someone, for instance, hesitantly complimented a story of mine as exhibiting great classical learning. And this is a story about a cult of corpse-eating witches where the hero’s drugged vomit is a major plot-point: any learning is safely below the surface where it’s not going to hurt anyone, like the science in Star Trek.

2. What made you choose fantasy over other genres for your first book?
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James: I do have non-fantasy projects in various stages of completion, but fantasy (and specifically the unfashionable sub-genre of sword-and-sorcery) is what I keep coming back to. I guess I love fantasy because realistic fiction doesn’t seem to me weird enough to truly express what life is really like. I also think that fantastic imagery is a sneaky way to get under the guard of a reader. Le Guin famously wrote that:

“The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.”

And I think, by a similar paradox, that one of the ways to talk to people about the things that matter most is to talk about things that never existed at all.

3. You have been publishing short stories for a while. Could you share with us your experiences of getting published and about how those differ (if they differ?) with the longer novel version?
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James: My modest success as a short story writer is the stuff of a young writer’s nightmare. I started writing stories steadily in my twenties. By then (the 1980s) most of the magazines who specialized in publishing adventure fantasy had died off, so I was writing short fiction without a market to sell it to. I had to decide whether to follow the market or write what I really wanted to write. I decided to follow the promptings of my sordid muse (or: sworded muse?) and on balance I think I made the right choice. But it meant that the market had to change a little before my work saw the light of day.

An example. In the spring of 1989, while my wife was pregnant with our first child, I had an idea for a story about the character who was (and is) at the center of most of my fiction, Morlock Ambrosius. I wrote the story fairly quickly and started sending it out places. Time passed. I was persistent. (After luck, this is a writer’s most important trait.) By the time the story was actually published, as “Turn Up This Crooked Way”, our son was old enough to drive a car.

What this indicates, I think, is that the market for short fiction is radically different than it was twenty years ago: a greater variety of genre fiction is being published. That’s the good part. The bad part is that readership seems to be in free fall for many of the short fiction markets. I’m not sure where this leaves us, ultimately, but I refuse to be pessimistic: people will continue to want stories and find a way to get them.

Having a body of published short fiction is certainly an advantage when you go to an agent or a publisher. But the most important thing to have in hand is a novel-manuscript that they think is worth publishing. So, if I were to go back and give my 20-something self advice, I’d suggest pursuing booklength projects along with short fiction.

4. Any favorite authors? Who would you recommend to your fans esp. in the fantasy/sci-fi genre? [Please cite other genres if you want to, as well!]
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James: I don’t consider myself really well-read: the field is too large for that these days. But I’m a big fan of Le Guin, Vance, Leiber, Brackett, Bujold, Zelazny. Among newer writers: Charles Stross and Joe Abercrombie. Among older writers: Dunsany, Cabell, Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros (but not so much his later Zimiamvian books).

5. What is your daily writing schedule like? And which kind of school of writing do you prefer [Outlining or free-writing]?
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James: “Schedule” might be putting it too strongly: I’m pretty haphazard about anything where I have a choice. By preference I write later in the day, especially after dark. But there are times when I wake up with an idea chewing its way out of my head and I have to release it through writing.

I don’t tend to strictly outline something, but from the beginning I usually have a sense of where the story is going to end. If I don’t, I don’t usually get very far with it. The longer a project is, the more likely I am to have a file of notes and drafts about what’s upcoming. If nothing else, this helps dispel the panic that comes from facing a blank page or screen.

6. What do you do when you are not writing or reading books? What are your other hobbies?
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James: My vocation and my avocation both involve lots of reading and writing, so that’s what I do a lot, even in my off-hours. Apart from that, I don’t exactly lead a life of adventure: I bike around; I go to movies and plays and concerts (when I have the opportunity: the reclaimed swamp that I live in is not exactly a cultural Mecca).

7. These are the various tales & short stories floating around the Internet about Morlock Ambrosius, they are listed below:

i. A Book Of Silences
ii. A Covenant With Death
iii. Fire and Sleet
iv. The Gordian Stone
v. Payment In Full
vi. Red Worm's Way
vii. The Lawless Hours
viii. Payment Deferred
ix. Turn Up This Crooked Way

Tell us about them & esp. the chronological reading order in which you intended them to be read.
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James: The stories can be read in any order, but it would make sense to read both “Payment Deferred” and “The Lawless Hours” before “Payment in Full.” And “Fire and Sleet” is a sort-of sequel to “A Book of Silences” (but I don’t think anything would be lost be reading them in reverse order).

There is a distinct biographical arc to Morlock’s life. He mastered the art of magical making and became famous at it. He had a long, arduous and triumphant career in the Graith of Guardians in the Wardlands (a rather anarchic culture on the western edge of Laent). He met a woman he loved and married her, somewhat against the odds. Then his career as a Guardian was destroyed; his marriage ended; he was exiled from his homeland; he became a drunk. Most of the published Morlock stories come from the period after this fall; only one of them (“A Covenant with Death”) comes from Morlock’s younger days.

Here’s the order, in terms of Morlock’s lifeline:

1. “A Covenant with Death” (originally published at Flashing Swords #5; online in its entirety HERE. Morlock and a senior Guardian, Jordel, confront a unicorn-killer in the eastern mountains of the Wardlands. I snuck a couple “Easter egg” references to this story into Blood of Ambrose, where Jordel and Morlock meet again in very different circumstances.

2. “The Red Worm’s Way” (originally published in the briefly available Flashing Swords E-Zine Annual; later in a somewhat different form in Return of the Sword; original version online HERE. Morlock stands a wake for a stranger’s corpse in a town haunted by corpse-gnawing witches. Morlock has an affinity for crows (or vice versa) and this story partially accounts for that.

3. "Blood of Ambrose" (sample chapters HERE). In a war for succession in the Ontilian Empire, Morlock and his sister, Ambrosia Viviana, battle the sinister Protector Urdhven and the shadowy adept using him as a catspaw.

4. “Payment Deferred” (excerpt HERE). Morlock, now an outlaw in the Ontilian Empire, cuts a deal with Charis, a treacherous but skilled maker of golems. The deal goes sour.

5. “Turn Up This Crooked Way” (excerpt HERE). Morlock’s pursuit of a thief leads him through the deadly blue forest of Tychar.

6. “The Lawless Hours” (excerpt HERE). There is a monster in the lawless woods that preys on human lives. There is a cult in the woods that serves it. The Riders defend the Four Castles against it. This delicate balance, like most things that are delicate, shatters when Morlock comes on the scene.

7. “Payment in Full” (excerpt HERE). Morlock returns to Sarkunden to claim his long-deferred payment from Charis, only to find Charis has his own problems with a traitor in the Imperial Guard and the insectlike Khroi who infest the northern mountains.

8. “A Book of Silences” (online HERE). Things start disappearing from Morlock’s world. His investigations lead to an empty house, a sorcerer slain by a phoenix and a stolen book of magic that could destroy the world without anyone even noticing.

9. “Fire and Sleet” (online HERE). Morlock hunts the phoenix while a group of old friends hunt Morlock.

You’ll notice I haven’t assigned a place to “The Gordian Stone” (read it HERE). Honestly, I haven’t decided exactly where it fits into Morlock’s biography; the story just bit my elbow and demanded to be told, so I did. It was the only way to get my elbow back.

8. What can you tell us about the books which are forthcoming after BOA namely This Crooked Way & the as-of-yet unnamed 3rd book? Is This Crooked Way an expansion of the short story “Turn Up This Crooked Way”?
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James: This Crooked Way is an episodic novel that knits together several of the stories that have appeared in Black Gate. Episodic novels (everyone else calls them “fix-ups,” I think) have a bad reputation nowadays, but I like them. I like the complex narrative rhythm that arises when a short story completes its arc in a satisfying way, but that’s only part of a larger arc which has its own resolution.

The third book now has a title, at least a tentative one: The Wolf Age. Fans of Norse mythology will recognize the reference to the Voluspa:

A spear-age, a sword-age:
shields are shattered.
A wind-age, a wolf-age:
before the world founders
men will show mercy to none.

In The Wolf Age, Morlock will travel (not entirely of his own choice) to Wuruyaaria (“Three-Moons-Aloft”), a city of werewolves near the northern edge of the world. And that’s probably as much as I should say about that until I write a little more of it.

9. What are your plans for the future? Are there any more books set in the Morlock universe? Any plans for other non-Morlock books?
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James: I’ve been writing about Morlock for something like thirty years now, so I doubt that I’ll stop soon. I do have a couple of non-Morlock novels in various stages of completion: a fantasy novel set in the Trojan War and a straight-historical novel, no fantasy content at all, set in the late Roman Republic.

10. Which book/books [irrespective of genre] have you read recently or in the past that have made an impression on you?
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James: The more I read the more I’m aware of gaps in my reading. But one book I read recently that really impressed me was Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. It’s a great story with vivid characters that is woven of important exciting philosophical ideas and debates. Stunning. Charles Saunders Imaro books also impressed me very deeply: the stuff of pulp fiction, from a very non-western perspective.

And something I try to do frequently is go back and read or reread stuff from earlier periods of English: early modern stuff like Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, sure, but also stuff from the late medieval period: Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl-poet, Malory. Modern English style can be very tedious: bland, yet somehow rancid. Older English reminds me how rich English is in resources that can make an impact on the ear and the heart.

11. You do seem to be a prolific blogger with your own blog & various articles at Black Gate! Are there any blogs that you like to read & what’s your take on emergence of the power of the blogosphere in promoting books! As for the last few years we have witnessed several authors who were heralded quite spectacularly like Scott Lynch, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss?
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James: I tend to like blogs that have a professional focus--Language Log for linguistics; rogueclassicism for classics, etc. For sf/f-oriented blogs, I like ones that generate a lot of discussion: like Sherwood Smith’s “Oached Pish”, on the more thoughtful side. Sherwood is a very fine writer of fantasy who has a talent for starting, and finding, interesting discussions.

Or, on the snarkier side, there is James Nicoll’s “More Words, Deeper Hole”: JN reads very widely (in and out of sf), has deep interests in the sciences and history, and a knack for asking innocent questions that leave a trail of devastation and memetic distortion in their wake. Generally I try to steer clear of hopeless, lightless, merciless blogostorms like RaceFail and MammothFail.

The power of the blogosphere to promote books is not something I fully understand. Maybe I’ll know more in a year or two. As soon as I started blogging, one began to hear that the blog was dead: the thing was to get on a social networking site like Facebook or Myspace. I recently got on Facebook, and now that’s being eclipsed by Twitter. Friends are urging me to get on Twitter, but it almost seems kinder not to: it would instantly make tweeting obsolete, and some people really seem to be enjoying it.

12. You teach Classical languages, how did this impact your stories & the overall world in general?
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James: As you’ve probably noticed, I’m way into medieval stuff also, and (non-professionally, because I don’t know any of the languages) stuff from non-European civilizations (like the Mongols, ancient Persia, India etc). These interests are just there: I don’t question them; I scratch the itch. But over the years I’ve developed some ideas about these interests and why they’re so urgent to me. And the ideas connect to why I’m also interested in science fiction and fantasy.

Every narrative tradition concerns itself with three things: character, conduct, and the world--what people are, what they do, and the context in which they do it. But not all narrative traditions focus on these things equally. The modern “realistic” novel, increasingly in the 20th century, concerned itself with character above all else: what the character felt and perceived. I’m not knocking this: realistic fiction has some triumphant achievements in this line--Joyce’s “The Dead”, for instance. But I think it’s an approach that is susceptible to diminishing returns.

Genre fiction, like medieval and classical traditions of storytelling, tends to concentrate much more on what people do and the context in which they do it. I love this concentration on conduct, on action (but not necessarily in the car-chases-and-gunfights sense) and on the world (Elfland is not like Poughkeepsie; a trip through either one may sharpen your appreciation for the other). I find it in the older narrative traditions; I find it in genre fiction; and I think it’s the reason that 21st century literary fiction is looking to refresh itself at the wells of genre.

13. What inspired or led to creation of Morlock Ambrosius & what can be revealed by you about him at this point?
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James: He grew out of frustrations I long had with a couple of my favorite writers as I grew up: specifically, J.R.R. Tolkien and H.G. Wells. I thought Tolkien was unfair to Dwarves, and Wells was unfair to Morlocks in a very similar way: they both tilted the playing field for the benefit of whole races the writers preferred (the Elves in Tolkien’s case, the Eloi in Wells’). This bugged me every time I reread their stuff. And at the same time I was getting into some of the source material for Arthurian legend, and I noticed that “Morlock” looked like names that appeared a lot in the texts: Morgan, Morgause, Morholt, Mordred, etc. Eventually all this coalesced into this character Morlock Ambrosius who was related to Arthurian legend, and also somehow connected with Dwarves.

And I banished Elves from my imaginary world altogether. Because I am just that childish. Other writers, including my fellow Pyr-authors, Matthew Sturges and Mark Chadbourn, have done some very cool non-Tolkienian things with Elvish characters, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be joining their ranks.

Morlock, as we find him in Blood of Ambrose, is carrying some damage. If he were a car, you wouldn’t buy him. But, though he thinks he’s done with life, life isn’t done with him: he keeps getting involved in other people’s lives.

14. To any new reader who hasn’t read any of your short stories, what would you say about them and your writing so as to draw them to give your books a try!
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James: Truthfully, I’m the worst salesman in the world, even worse than I was as a breakfast-waiter. I expect most readers will find me sort of an odd writer. I firmly believe, not only in my right but in my obligation to use adjectives and adverbs pretty freely. I don’t like likable characters and I don’t believe in believable situations.

I believe that the greatest danger to genre fiction nowadays is not the denial of respect from some notional group of literary tastemakers but the very real likelihood that sf/f may become respectable. Those who thirst for the foamy gray poison of respectability should consider the fate of jazz, once a popular medium, now respectable, ossified and ignored.

So, if nothing else, I promise the prospective reader to not be respectable. I’ll try to tell an interesting story and tell it well, but at the very least it won’t be respectable.

15. Any last words of wisdom sir?
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James: Just thanks, for letting me maunder on like this. These were provocative questions; I hope at least some of the answers were interesting.

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