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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Interview with Miles Cameron II - Reenacting and Re-creation (with comments by Liviu Suciu)

1. Hello Miles, and welcome back.  Care to tell us about your passion for history?

Thanks, Liviu.  
Let me start by saying that history—to me—defines everything we do and who we are.  History is the story of the human race.  History is, to all of us, what the experience of our own lives is to us as individuals.

It has become popular to pretend that history isn’t important.  Farcical, if you ask me.  Can you imagine having a spat with your partner wherein neither one of you had a clue what had happened to spark the fight? (I admit that I think every couple on the planet has had this experience….)  That’s a life without history.

2. And what does that have to do with fantasy as a genre?
Well—I expect this will be controversial, but as an historian, when I read fantasy, I read in history.  Let’s take—just for example—the shape of swords.  If I’m presented with a fantasy universe where all the swords are curved—I make certain cultural assumptions.  After all, curved blades are a cultural artifact—they represent certain smithing traditions and certain fighting styles and traditions of nomadic horsemanship.

Whether the author knows it or not.

The same is true of food.  Mention mead and you evoke a whole culture. Art?  If I say ‘woad tattoos,’ need I say more?  Knot work? Gilded illumination?  Calligraphy? Harp music? Almost every one of these evokes an historical culture and a place in history, and whether we intend it or not, as writers, we’re using our audience’s appreciation of history to flesh out our imaginations.  Call a man or woman a ‘knight’ and you are in a huge stack of cultural assumptions—horses, armor, the cult of chivalry, the Christian religion, the world of courtly love, the deification of personal violence—there’s almost no end to it, and you tapped the whole thing—whether you meant to or not—in one word.  The Red Knight is about knights.  It is in the title.  

Anyway, that’s history.  And while, as I say, there are many people who will tell you that history is all bias and written by the winners and only available to us with a truckload of context, I’d argue that history really did happen and theoreticians should stop attempting to trivialize it.  The Holocaust happened.  Srebrenica happened.  Ancient Greece happened and so did the crusades and slavery and everything.  It all happened, and it made us what we are—perceptions, bias, myth, and fact all in one giant ball of fact and context.  

And part of history is experience.  I like to play with all the toys—myself—before I write about something.  There really is something to walking a mile in someone else's shoes. 
Martin Heidegger suggested that the ability to adopt an alien point of view—to get outside your concepts of normalcy—is essential to philosophy.  (I’m doing his thought an injustice of simplification, there). I think his point is valid.  And I think that really immersing yourself in another culture—whether a modern one or one from the past—is a path to more deeply understanding—well, everything.  

3. So—how does all this re-creation and immersion affect your writing?

Sometimes it is simple, and sometimes it is very complicated.  At the simple end, I can write a much better fight scene when I really understand how a weapon works and how the body interacts with it—the bio-mechanics of the martial art will give me better descriptions.  Direct experience is the easiest way for me to learn just how a sword cut feels, so that I can describe it better.

At some level, though, everyone who has ever swung a stick understands something of the biomechanics of swinging a sword.  So when I transmit my information, it is adding to the core of what the reader already knows, or at least suspects. Ah, the reader says.  You can break someone’s arm through chainmail.  That makes sense.  

The next level involves experiences the reader has probably never had—let’s say, commanding troops on a battlefield.  So—in reenactment, I have commanded more than a thousand troops on a battlefield a mile by a mile.  I’ve done it on foot and on horseback.  I know how it feels to measure the distance from me to the unit that is critically out of line—failing, maybe losing the battle—and to know that I cannot get a message there before the disaster strikes.  Perhaps best of all, I know as an author and a reenactor that the feeling I have is exactly the same as I have when my opponent’s blade sneaks past my blade—in that terribly long 1/6th of a second before it smacks into my helmet.  The awful train wreck feeling that disaster has not happened yet—but it is coming, and I can do nothing to avert it.  And I think that’s a valid thought for a commander to have, and so I can write it.

And the final level is—well, at the core of what I think of as good writing.  I like the old hierarchy of motivation and character, and reenacting gives me the tools to demonstrate motivations and to explore character without anachronism.  Knowing how to sew leather allows me to explore a little of how every cavalryman spent his time—repairing his tack.  Knowing how difficult it is to keep five hundred reenactors fed, clothed, and warm for an autumn weekend is at least a window on how hard it is to feed, cloth, and maintain an army at the edge of winter, which is going to be pivotal in The Fell Sword.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are things I wouldn’t even have thought of, much less attempted to get right—if I hadn’t had at least a surface acquaintance with the experience.

4. Is Red Knight really an Historical Fantasy?

Not really.  First, the setting—the geographical setting—is not Europe.  If it is anywhere, it is Canada and upstate New York, with hefty elements of Greece, a little of England, and some California.  Second, the main culture—the culture of the Albans—is a nice hodge-podge of historical and fantastical contributions, so yes, England and the Arthurian is there, but so is Boccaccio and Dante from Renaissance Italy, so is ancient Greece and Rome, so is Celtic pre-Roman Europe, and, if you look really closely, so is Gnostic Christianity versus the mainstream Catholic/Protestant brand.   

And let’s not forget things I simply made up—a world of the wild wherein there be monsters who have their own life-ways and cultures, as well as a melange of Native American and Steppe Nomad life-ways among the Outwallers. Over the mountains in Morea is another set of human cultures that owe more to Serbia and Bulgaria and Byzantium than to the Arthurian world, and in the oceans (alongside my beloved salmon) live things that owe more to H.P. Lovecraft than to any historical input.

That said, though, I have tried to make my cultures work. For me that means art, economics, political history, and military history.  And yes, it is true that I draw on history to make these things work.  So the wool trade—more heavily featured in book two, The Fell Sword; the fur trade with the Outwallers, the large scale growing of vitally needed grain on a dangerous frontier—these are all stolen from history, and not always from medieval history.  Fell Sword will see a major character coming on stage from the world of Islam—with new takes on art, culture, war, and the Red Knight.  It’s a big world.  I try to make it complex so that it will resemble our own.  But it isn’t our own with magic tacked on.  It is, literally, a different world.

5. Care to comment on why your world has a philosopher named Aristotle?

Sure.  In a way, that’s cheating, but I won’t beat my breast and cry mea culpa.  Aristotle did more than almost any other single human being to create the intellectual world of the Middle Ages, and the only contender would be Jesus of Nazareth.  Once I decided that the central facts of my world would be knights against monsters—I won’t be coy—I was faced with the possibility of spending hundreds of pages explaining—for example—Neo-Platonic hermeticism.  I could create a great thinker of the past and give him a tricky anagram so that the astute reader would guess that he was ‘just like Aristotle.’  I could have, but it seemed easier, and in many ways more fun, to just call Plato and Aristotle by their real names.  Maybe some readers will go out and read them!

Now I will be coy and say there’s another reason, too, but I see no reason to reveal it yet. 

6. I understand that you’ve finished Book two.

Yes, I’ll use Fantasy Book Critic as my bully pulpit and announce that ‘The Fell Sword’ which may or may not be the final title, is complete at 987 manuscript pages.  I’m sure there will be some changes in editing, but at least readers can be assured that it is done.

7. Can you tell us anything about it?

Well—it will widen the world a little bit.  Most of the action takes place in Morea, over the mountains from Alba, which is where Ser Alcaeus comes from in book one.  The cosmology is a little more revealed.  The threat—the real plot—begins to emerge.  And—oh by the way—the Red Knight continues as the central character, and the secret of his family and birth is revealed.  There are some fight scenes.  

8. One more question then.  Will you do any reenacting—specifically—to help write book three?

Oh, good question!  Yes.  Book Three—which in my head is called ‘Tournament of Fools’ will center, somewhat unsurprisingly, around a great tournament held at Harndon.  And all the events that follow.  To prepare for all that, I’ll be hosting a tournament next August, for my fellow reenactors.  And I’ll also go visit some other tournaments, and hopefully, get to joust.  Jousting is a hole in my experience.  I expect to get bounced around on the ground a bit.  But that’s what helps the writing.

9. Thanks, Miles.  Will you come back and talk to us about wilderness camping?

I’d be delighted. 


I would like to thank Mr. Cameron for this entertaining followup interview where he fulfills the promise from the end of the first interview to tell us more about how reenacting helped writing the novel. Hopefully we will also see more about wilderness camping, maybe sometimes around the release of The Fell Sword!

Note also that today - Tuesday January 22 2013 - is the official US release of The Red Knight!

Here are the first lines from The Red Knight for your pleasure:
"The Captain of Albinkirk forced himself to stop staring out his narrow, glazed window and do some work.
  He was jealous. Jealous of a boy a third of his age, commanding a pretty company of lances. Riding about. While he sat in a town so safe it was dull, growing old.
  Don’t be a fool, he told himself. All those deeds of arms make wonderful stories, but the doing is cold, wet and terrifying. Remember?
  He sighed. His hands remembered everything – the blows, the nights on the ground, the freezing cold, the gauntlets that didn’t quite fit. His hands pained him all the time, awake or
  The Captain of Albinkirk, Ser John Crayford, had not started his life as a gentleman. It was a rank he’d achieved through pure talent.
 For violence."



Doug Smith said...

I've actually had The Red Knight on my TBR since it was released in October in the UK. I haven't gotten around to it, but this interview makes me think I should! Really interesting - a method writer that writes fantasy!

The concepts for the sequel sounds great, too - particularly book 3!

John said...

So excited to hear that Book 2 is done!

Can we expect a September/October release date ?

Sam said...

Great interview. As an historian and writer myself your outlook and views really strike a chord with me, Miles.

Keep up the good work!


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