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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Interview with Blake Charlton

Order “SpellboundHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read FBC’s Review of “Spellwright
Read FBC’s Review of “Spellbound

Blake Charlton overcame severe dyslexia in seventh grade when he began sneaking fantasy and science fiction books into special ed study hall. Inspired, he went on to graduate Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University. From here, Blake worked at numerous jobs—English teacher, biomedical technical writer, learning-disability tutor, etc.—while finishing his debut novel, Spellwright, the first volume in The Spellwright Trilogy. In the following interview, Blake Charlton talks about Spellbound, the second volume in The Spellwright Trilogy; the new protagonist, setting and magic in Spellbound; cover art and much more...

Q: Spellbound is the second novel you’ve written; it follows Spellwright. For some authors, it’s easier writing their second novel. For others, it’s more difficult. What was it like for you compared to writing your debut? Did you do anything differently the second time around?

Blake: I started Spellwright when I was 20 years old and bored in an English lecture. I didn’t know much about writing fiction then and I certainly knew nothing about the publishing industry. I wrote and rewrote Spellwright before I picked up an agent, who had me rewrite it twice more. I picked up an editor who had me rewrite it twice more again. Then came editing and polishing. Not until I was 30 did the book hit the shelves. I’m happy with the result, but now it feels like the work of an author learning his trade. Working on one book for a decade can be a disadvantage. Many of my peers toss out one or two or twelve books before publishing; there’s something wonderful in that—losing the mistakes you made when you were setting out. Maybe disadvantages too. I wouldn’t know. Spellwright ended up being a composition of my twenties painted over each other like lacquer: Nicodemus reflected the life I had known as a 19-year-old special ed student, Shannon what I had known as a special ed teacher and tutor at 25, etc etc.

Spellbound, on the other hand, was written entirely within my 30th year, after two years of medical school. Add to that I had more writing experience under my belt, and the result was an experience much more satisfying than that of the previous book. There were ups and downs—times when I was stumped or my beta-readers found flaws or my editors hated something. But I only had two rounds of major rewrites, and everyone so far agrees that the resulting book is better than my first. I’m crossing every possible appendage that the readers agree.

Q: Besides being the second novel you’ve written, Spellbound is also the second volume in The Spellwright Trilogy. Oftentimes, the second volume in a trilogy is accused of suffering from ‘middle-book syndrome’. That’s not the case with Spellbound. Not only is Spellbound set ten years after the events of Spellwright, but a lot of questions are answered in the book, major plot developments occur, and the reader is left with a sense of satisfaction at the end. Were you consciously trying to avoid the problems commonly associated with ‘middle-book syndrome’—more filler than plot movement, lack of closure, cliffhanger endings, etc.—when writing Spellbound, or was making each book in the trilogy self-contained part of the plan from the very beginning?

Blake: Seems to me that today the most popular mode of a serializing an epic fantasy is one of a building, surging progression reaching a final crescendo—a bit like a tidal wave or an avalanche. Tolkien being the prime mover, as always. More contemporary examples would be Jordan, Martin, etc. The epic forces at play in the world are described in continuous and ever greater detail. The story has one beginning, an indeterminate (one sometimes fears infinite) number of surges, and one final climactic ending. Done well, the first and last books take care of themselves, and the middle books start during troughs and end just after satisfying surges. I love these epics. I grew up on them. But I have no interest in writing one. In part, this is because I can’t; my medical career doesn’t allow for the required time. But in part, this is because I find an alternative mode of serialization much interesting.

I wanted to write an epic that was not a continuous progression but a set of contained and enjoyable stories. An epic not like a wave but like a stone skipping across the water. In this, as in many things, I am deliberately imitating Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. I think this is a wonderful way to tell an epic; as you (so kindly) remarked, it allows one to tell self-contained stories while advancing the series and tying up the loose ends. If done expertly (I’m not so sure I’ve achieved this), it allows new readers to enter into a series at different books. Of course, there are disadvantages to using an alternative mode. I’ve already been receiving emails from readers distressed that Spellbound won’t be a “true sequel,” because it takes place ten years after the first book. Some critics—expecting the traditional proliferation of point-of-view characters that split up to cover a continent—complain that my series lacks ‘world building’ because I contain my stories to one region. In the end, I think there’s a line authors have to walk between experimenting with novel aspects of storytelling, which have novel advantages and limitations, and providing enough of the traditional and expected aspects to please readers.

Q: One thing about Spellbound that immediately jumped out at me was the new setting of Avel—a city in the kingdom of Spires—which is quite different from the setting found in Spellwright. Could you tell us a bit more about the inspiration behind Avel and the kingdom of Spires?

Blake: Spellwright’s setting was taken from the institution of the European university; Starhaven architecture and culture were inspired by my time at Yale University. I think it’s safe to say Spellwright fits into the “magical academy” subgenre, hopefully the concept of disability in magic gave it a fresh twist. One reviewer called it “Harry Potter and the Special Ed Classroom.” I think he was trying to be snide, but I was pretty flattered by the comparison. The setting for Spellbound is deliberately very different. I wanted to take the story out of the academy and show a larger slice of my world. I wanted the reader’s experience to mirror the experience of a young wizard (or for that matter most young people today), who grew up knowing only school and then had to readjust to “the real world.”

Most of Spellbound’s action takes place in Avel, which is a thriving city in the deep savannah of the kingdom of Spires. I drew inspiration for Spirish culture and architecture from the medieval cities of Morocco. As a young man, I spent a summer in the city of Meknes, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, as part of a student exchange program. A few months later, I travelled in Spain a bit and saw a lot of similar architectural and cultural elements. I remember finding it fascinating how both Moroccan and Spanish cuisine use the spice cumin. I was also struck by some unexpected similarities between the two languages. For example, the Spanish word for rice “arroz” came from the Andalusian Arabic word “aruzz.” Something else that caught my interest was the fact that I had encountered similar cultural elements in the Americas. Mexican cuisine also uses cumin and many of the grandest Latin American structures have Moorish (read Moroccan) elements. Two years ago I was fortunate enough to visit Peru. In Lima, I toured El Covento de San Francisco and about half way through the tour found myself standing under an ornate and beautiful ceiling decorated with a “Moorish Star,” which was almost a replica of one such pattern I had seen as a teenager in North Africa.  So that cultural exposure was what planted the seed of inspiration. I read up on Al Andalusia, on several of the many different Catholic kingdoms of medieval Spain, and on the (much later) Ottoman Empire’s settlements in North Africa. I mashed all of them together, added some purely imaginary cultural, political, and magical (see below) elements to create Spires. For the land surrounding Spires, I mashed up the geography of North Africa and my native North California—there are, you may be surprised to learn, a lot of similarities between the two. The result was a city, a region, and a culture I loved to explore, which I hope others will too.

Q: And what about the spellwrights of Spires, the hierophants? What inspired you to dream up the very unique hierophantic language?

Blake: When reading up on Arabic architecture, I learned about an ancient architectural device used in Arabic and Persian buildings to create ventilation and which is most commonly translated into English as a “windcatcher.” I’ve read of several variations on the device, but most commonly I’ve read of windcatchers that divert wind down a tower—sometimes underground—and then through a building providing it with cooling ventilation. At the same time, I was dreaming up the magical language that the Spirish spellwrights, called hierophants, would use.

From my first conception of the trilogy’s magic system, I wanted runes to have to be ‘charged’ by a spellwright. As is commonly remarked, many authors place limitations or ‘costs’ upon magic. Perhaps not surprising given my medical background, the cost I chose was physiological. Runes must be created by muscles and require energy in the same way movement requires energy. Some people are stronger than others; some spellwrights are more prolific than others. But being a student of physiology, I knew that there are different types of muscle tissue. So then, it followed, different types of muscle should create different types of magical runes. In Spellwright, we saw mostly runes created in skeletal muscle, which is the most abundant type of muscle that responds to voluntary or reflex nerve stimulation to move an arm or leg or whatever. Cardiac muscle—the muscle of the heart—is very different. It never rests and generates its electrical impulses to coordinate its contraction. The heart moves blood, blood moves oxygen (and other things), and oxygen comes from the air. So, it seems logical to me, that the runes of the heart muscle should be concerned with air.

There was one final spark that contributed to the creation of the hierophantic language. When reading about the magic of the Middle East, one cannot ignore the phenomenon of the flying carpet. In the post Disney’s Aladdin world, we tend to think of flying carpets as campy, almost childish. So there could be no outright flying carpets in my book. But in an effort to capture that dream-like sense of flying and weightlessness that doubtless the first flying carpet stories invoked, I made my final connection: Hierophantic language might be stored on cloth. While in cloth, the language could move about as powerfully as the wizardly languages; however, if once the runes left cloth they would turn into wind. This meant that skilled hierophants could store up large quantities of their language, write them on to prodigious amounts of cloth and create animated kites, ship sails that generated their own wind, even airships. What was more, the hierophants could create massive wind-powered turbines that could harness the power of the wind and augment their ability to create more runes. Naturally, I called these turbines ‘windcatchers.’

Hopefully, none of this is obvious or distracting to the casual reader. And hopefully, I did a better job of leaving out the technical aspect of an intricate magic system while still preserving the sense of wonder and fun that such intricacy can inspire.

Q: I also noticed that Spellbound features a bunch of new characters, specifically Francesca DeVega. Francesca is a cleric/physician of Avel’s infirmary, who is quite charming, yet very expressive. Could you tell us more about Francesca . . . what it’s like writing her, what experience or people inspired the character and so on?

Blake: Francesca may or may not be the conglomeration of A) a very expressive female surgeon with whom I have worked, B) my favorite high school English teacher, C) Francesca da Rimini from Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, and C) several, forever-unnamed ex-girlfriends. Or rather, I should say that Fran may have started out as such a conglomeration but then quickly developed her own voice that now seems to me perfectly unique.

I think of Spellbound as being Francesca’s book in the way that Spellwright was Nicodemus’s book. Writing Fran is a joy, mostly. By her nature, she is something of a trickster. She wants to push the envelope. My biggest task with her is making sure I don’t let her go too far, that she didn’t take over the whole book. One of the major rewrites was shifting events around so that Fran did a better job of sharing the limelight with Nico. A beta-reader of mine described Francesca as “the love child of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Locke Lamora.” I was pretty flattered by that comparison with one reservation: “Locke gets to drop the F-bomb in his books,” which is something that Fran would have loved to do.

Q: With Spellbound set to be published in September 2011, how are things progressing with the next book? Is there anything you can tell us?

Blake: Without spoiling for those who haven’t read Spellbound, I can’t tell you much. I can say that I’m in a quandary about the title. The first working title was “Disjunction,” because it is about—as the readers of the trilogy might expect—the foretold conflict of the same name. However, it seems a number of readers object to the grammatical sound of this title. It has made more than few sing an altered version of “Conjunction, conjunction, what’s your function?” at me. So…that’s out. Meanwhile, my UK editor was pushing for the world “spell” to appear in the title for branding purposes. But I didn’t think Spellcheck, or Spellingbee, passed muster.  So, presently, I’m toying with the titles “Disspell,” which I like a bit and “Spellbreaker,” which I like a lot. If you or any of your readers have a strong opinion, feel free to let me know about it.

Oh, last thing, perhaps I can say without spoiling that the events of book three will take place roughly thirty years after the end of Spellbound.

Q: Once The Spellwright Trilogy is finished, what do you plan on writing next? Will you return to the world of Spellwright? Try out a different genre. Maybe even a different format?

Blake: This is the very big, very distracting question that hangs over the end of my Tor book contract. It’s complicated by medical training. Until this year, I easily balanced the classroom and research demands of medical school with writing. I made my own schedule and as long as I met my deadlines, there was no problem. This year is my first as a “clinical” medical student. My schedule is no longer my own. The work hours and the tasks can be all-consuming. Stanford has been gracious enough to give me time off to promote Spellbound, but I simply cannot write while studying and working a surgery or an internal medicine rotation. However, fairly soon, I’ll complete my clinical requirements and have about a year to knock off the rest of book three. But thereafter I will start residency, in what specialty of medicine I don’t yet know. From everything I have heard, read, or seen, residency is an order of magnitude more consuming than medical school. So, my first goal will be to survive…hopefully with a good portion of my happiness and most if not all of my sanity intact.

That said, I plan to write until they nail my coffin shut. As those who have read Spellbound might guess, taking care of patients has exposed me to a great deal of inspiring, terrifying, awe-inducing experiences that cry out for the page. My fourth book will not likely be in the Spellwright universe. Another Spellwright trilogy may be in the works later on, but now I’m itching to try out several other ideas: a Magic Realism / New Weird novel inspired by the time I spent in special ed and by my experiences taking care of disabled children in the hospital; a humorous novel about the foibles of the American medical system (and they are legion); a Tim Powers-ish secret history novel about Thomas Lodge, a playwright who competed with Shakespeare but then became a physician. I daydream about these things when studying for a massive exam or when recovering from an overnight shift, but how it’s all going to fit together…well…at the very least it’ll be interesting to see how that happens.

Q: I understand you’re a big fan of Todd Lockwood’s artwork. What did you think about the Spellbound cover? What about your thoughts on the differences between the US and UK covers? Any cover ideas for the third book?

Blake: I have always loved Todd’s work. When I first signed with Tor, one of my first questions was if I could get Todd to do the art. He and Tor’s art director, Irene Gallo, have done a fantastic job on both books. Spellwright’s themes are night, stone, coming of age, delving down. Spellbound’s themes are daylight, air, romance, flying higher. If you put the books side by side, you can really see what a phenomenal job Todd and Irene did in capturing the feel of both books. I had only one concern about the Spellbound cover: I wanted Francesca to be on it. Which, if you’ve read the book and think about what you are seeing when looking at the cover, might make you smile. As for book three’s cover, that’s nothing to report as of now. Likely I won’t get onto Todd’s dance card until I have a completed manuscript, and I can’t honestly speculate on when that might be. I can say that the themes for book three will be twilight, water, war, and travel.

I also like the UK covers, but the US covers are more my style. I am often told that British readers favor books with more iconic artwork, and in that the UK covers do a fine job of purveying that. As I understand it, the selection of a golden sphere for Spellwright was based on the spherical Numinous spell cast in the library scene of that book, where as the blue diamond of the Spellbound cover was taken from both the blue hierophantic language and the theme of the “diamond mind.” If Voyager keeps to that theme, I would suspect the cover for book three would illustrate a deep red language…of what geometry I couldn’t yet guess.

What I find most interesting is that in some European countries I am marketed as young adult fantasy, others as adult. I deliberately tried to walk the line between the two; my goal was to make a 15-year-old reading the book feel as sophisticated as a 55-year-old, and a 55-year-old as filled with wonder as the 15-year-old. The covers in the countries reflect the choice to position the book as YA or not in interesting ways.

Q: HBO’s Game of Thrones is a very hot topic. If you’ve seen the show, what did you think of the adaptation? With Game of Thrones being such a huge success, do you think that will help or hinder fantasy literature in the future?

Blake: Eh. I’ve seen most of the episodes. They’re not bad. I just finished A Dance with Dragons  *mild spoiler warning* and feel almost as irked with the series as I did after reading the Red Wedding. Likely I’m a little overloaded on GRRM right now, so take what follows with a grain of salt. But, it seems to me that we are reaching the pinnacle of the gritty (or nonconciliatory or whatever-it’s-called-these-days) school of epic fantasy. There are already a few GRRM knock-offs out there, and I’d guess the success of the HBO series is going to sponsor more of them. Nothing succeeds like success, they say, and nothing annoys like excess. Just a guess, but I’d put my money on a continued proliferation of Martonian fantasy for a few years more and then a rise of a school that breaks away from the mainstream. Overall, I think this will be a good thing for fantasy literature, bringing more people and diversity into the genre; however, it’s a pattern of rise and fall that has happened before and likely will happen again.

Q: Another hot topic is with e-books and their growing popularity. What are your thoughts on e-books and e-readers in relation to traditional print?

Blake: I love the word more than the medium. Being more auditory than visual, I listen to far more audiobooks than I read on paper or computer screen. I don’t think any particular medium (audio, paper, screen) is better than any other. There’s no part of the human body so diverse as the brain, and I believe that some people are better wired for one medium versus another. I think it’s wonderful that we often have a choice of medium for a given book. However, I do worry about how e-books might change the economics of publishing. I have a writing friend who is fond of saying that “In publishing, one can make a killing but not a living.” Meaning that there are plenty of examples of astoundingly rich authors (JK Rowling, Steven King, etc) and a near infinite number of examples of starving authors, but there are frighteningly few who can live in between as stable, middleclass authors. I worry that the decline in dead-tree based book sales and the increasing prevalence of pirated text online could conspire to completely kill off the middle class author. Whether or not it will, I have no idea. As far as I know the data to answer that question simply doesn’t yet exist, so I distrust anyone predicting either doom or total redemption.

Having two careers makes my situation a little be different. I aim to follow the much larger footsteps of the great Russian author and physician Anton Chekhov, who once said, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.” It’s a life that has advantages and disadvantages: I would guess that I worry less about the economics of publishing than some fulltime writers do, but on the flip side, I will never be as prolific as they are.

Q: Between your careers in medicine and writing, I’m sure you’re quite busy, but have you had a chance to read anything lately? If so, what books have recently impressed you the most, what are you currently reading, and what titles are you most looking forward to?

Blake: For me, constantly reading is almost more important than constantly writing. I still manage to get a book or two in a month, mostly audiobooks when driving to or from the hospital, or when jogging. Sometimes I feel that reading is the only thing that keeps medical school from swallowing me whole.

The most powerful book I’ve read so far this year is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. It was a bit slow out of the gates and it’s science fictional premise is facile, but then it blooms into an engaging and quiet narration of childhood, innocence, sex, mortality, and character. It’s short, brilliant, heartbreaking. The most fun I have had when reading came from Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank). I am a huge Daniel Abraham fan and consider my writing heavy influenced by his. Leviathan is a solar-system-wide mystery with a great story, wonderful science, and great characters. The best nonfiction I’ve read this year would be the classic The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks; it is a brilliant, unabashedly erudite, and yet compassionate collection of neurological case narrations. The best young adult book I’ve read this year was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, which was hilarious, touching, and eye-opening.

Hands down, the book I am most anticipating is Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch. I have read The Lies of Locke Lamora no less than four times and may do so again. In my opinion, Lynch is the king of wit and suspense. I’m eager to see where he takes the series next.

Q: In closing, is there anything else you’d like to say?

Blake: Thanks so much for the interview. It was wonderful fun.


Jamie Gibbs said...

Great interview :) Spellbreaker sounds pretty awesome, though Spellcheck might work too (just have a magical paperclip pop up every now and again with 'Hey! It looks like you're trying to cast a spell! I can help you!' and then disappear again).

I'm a big fan of languages and linguistics, so this is right up my street :D

Robert said...

Thanks Jamie! Personally, I like 'Spellbreaker' the best. Not only does it fit with the other titles, but it just sounds cool :D

John (johnnie_cakes) said...

Great interview! I really like Spellbreaker as a title too. I love hearing authors talk about their worlds and genre.

I'm a huge fan of both of Charlton's books, and am glad to see that Spellbound is getting the attention it deserves. It's a fantastic book.

Robert said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the interview John :) Hopefully Spellbound and Blake Charlton does get the attention they deserve...


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