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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Interview with Craig Schaefer (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Winter's Reach
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Instruments Of Control

Craig Schaefer is an indie author who has burst onto the scene with his dark, pulpy urban fantasy thrillers titled the Daniel Faust series. I however got introduced to him via his Revanche Cycle books which are no less dark and have lots of political intrigue, fantastic characters and a tight, twisted plot.  All in all, it was something that I feel in love with immediately and devoured both volumes (of a possible four) ASAP. I wanted to know more about Craig and his thoughts on his self-published roots, his snazzy book covers and few other things about his work. So read on to find out all that and what readers should look out for in his books...

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To start with, could you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, and anything else you’d like to share about yourself and your past?

CS: Why become a writer? It's the only job that can make you a god. I'm joking, of course, but there's a core of truth to it: the act of storytelling is a beautiful, sublime thing. We create places that don’t exist, and breathe life into people who -- if we're doing our job well -- could be just as real as your next-door neighbor. We craft stories to make you think, make you feel, to take you on a journey and back again without having to leave your chair. With the combined power of my keyboard and a reader's imagination, a world is born.

Once I got my first taste of that magic as a child, both as an avid reader and taking my first clumsy attempts at storytelling (some might say I'm still making clumsy attempts…), I was hooked for life. I couldn't be anything else, not really.

Q] I read that you thought of giving writing a serious crack around your 40th birthday. Can you talk to us of this momentous decision and how you arrived at it?

CS: I've always written as a personal pursuit. The Long Way Down was actually my seventh completed novel; the first six are locked in a trunk, and when I die, hopefully they will be doused in gasoline and set on fire before they can hurt anybody. Writing professionally, however, always fell by the wayside due to career obligations and…I suppose you could call it a general failure to ignite.

Everyone knows you need a staggering amount of luck to get into the traditional publishing system. What people might not know is that, even if you're able to land that agent, land that publisher, land that contract, there's no guarantee you'll make any kind of decent living off your work (and odds are, you won't). You'd be amazed how many people with best-selling books have to work a day job to put food on the table. So while I dreamed of being a successful novelist and occasionally made the query rounds, that was more of a "buy a winning lottery ticket" fantasy than a realistic plan.

Then a friend took me aside and said "So have you done any reading on this self-publishing thing? It's not like it used to be, with vanity presses -- there are some real, serious, good writers doing this." This was right around the time I hit 40, and found myself confronting my mortality. I went to Vegas to celebrate my birthday, alone, and sat down to work out what the hell I was doing with my life. I told myself, "The decisions I make now, here in this hotel room, today, are going to shape the rest of my life. I always tell people to go for their passions. What am I passionate about? What do I want more than anything?"

Hotel 32 has these rain-shower faucets. They're these big squares on the shower ceiling, and they gush torrents of water down and it feels like standing in a thunderstorm. I stepped into the water, and I knew what I wanted. It was a baptism. When I got out of the shower, I sat down and wrote out a business plan. I had found my way.

Q] Since you began to publish your work, you have put out 6 books in a 12-month period. Could you kindly elaborate on why you choose to go with self-publishing and what advantages it afforded?

CS: I had a head start, which helped. When my first book launched, the second one had already been completed and edited, and the third was almost done. I wanted to get at least that much of a lead, to make sure the series had legs and that I'd be happy writing it for the long haul.

I'd never tell another writer what they should do, but for me, self-publishing is the only route that makes sense. My background is in business, and I enjoy entrepreneurial work, so that part of the job is fun for me. Storytelling-wise? Freedom. Complete freedom. The book I imagine is the book that gets delivered to you (for better or for worse, but the risks are mine to take), and I've assembled a great team that helps me to deliver the best work I can.

Q] Speaking about your books, all of them have such striking covers and are very eye-catching. Please talk to us about how they came to be? What input did you have for them?

CS: Quite a bit; James T. Egan does all of my covers, and we talk about themes, emotions -- essentially, what we want the reader to feel when they see my books. Trying to sell the same tone that you'll get from the story inside. Once he shows me the preliminary version, I either request alterations or we press on ahead to the final cover (and considering how skilled James is, changes are a very, very rare request).

Q] So for someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write, what would be your pitch for the Daniel Faust Series and The Revanche Cycle?

CS: The Daniel Faust series  is low-magic urban fantasy that owes its roots to the hard-boiled crime genre. The protagonist is an unapologetic con artist and thief, equally comfortable with sorcery and gunplay, who tries to make a (dis)honest living in a shadowy occult underworld. They're fast, pulpy, roller-coaster reads.

A friend described one of the later books as "like the TV show Leverage, but they keep the money they steal, and a whole lot of people end up dead." This may or may not be an endorsement, depending on your tastes.

The Revanche Cycle is a different beast. It's a sweeping epic fantasy with multiple viewpoint characters, set in a fantasy world vaguely reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance. It's about a lot of things. It's about conspiracies, political intrigue, and poison. It's about the relationship between church and state, and how religion is used (and abused) to shape policy. It's about faith, and culture, and overcoming the obstacles society throws in your path. It's a story about women.

It is also, as the title hints, a story about revenge. And how a single violent act, buried in the past, can have devastating, global consequences.

Q] With both your series, the urban fantasy as well the epic fantasy one, you have created some note-worthy characters (Mari, Livia, Harmony, etc.). Please talk to us about your thought process for creating and writing about them?

CS: I want to know everything about my characters, even – maybe especially – the things that don’t make it explicitly to the page. What they love, what they hate, what they’re afraid of. As a writer, I think you have to know your characters and more importantly, you have to care about them. You have to fall in love with them a little, even the bastards. Because if you don’t care, you can’t make your readers care.

Q: All four titles in the Daniel Faust series are written in the first-person, which is very common for urban fantasy novels. While your fantasy series is set in the third person. Why do you choose to delineate the POVs this way and what do you feel are the differences between first-person and third-person narratives?

CS: One could imagine that the Daniel Faust books are basically you riding along with Faust -- or him telling you the story over drinks at the Tiger’s Garden -- and getting the whole adventure (down to his thoughts and emotions) firsthand. The idea is to get you as close to the action as possible, and hopefully forge an emotional connection.

The Revanche Cycle books had to be multiple-viewpoint, because the size of the story -- and the nature of how each character is ultimately connected -- demanded it. Now, I could have done it first-person and written each scene in a different character's internal voice, but that really risks reader confusion ("Wait, who's narrating this chapter again?") and I don’t think I'm a skilled enough writer to make that work.

The takeaway here is that neither first nor third person is inherently superior; it's a question of what method is the best fit for the story you're trying to tell.

Q] You recently signed on with 47 North for a spinoff series set in the Daniel Faust world. Please tell us about the Harmony Black series and how many books do you have planned?

CS: Harmony was originally introduced as a foil for Daniel Faust: a spell-slinging FBI agent who knows all of his tricks, and is determined to see him behind bars. Her spinoff series will follow her adventures with her new team, working to take down occult criminals and supernatural threats all over the United States. Since the Faust books are almost all rooted in Las Vegas, it's a neat opportunity to broaden the setting and show all the weird, scary stuff happening everywhere else.

And in Faust's world, trust me: no matter where you live, there's some weird, scary stuff going on.

There will definitely be at least two books in the series, which makes its debut in January 2016; beyond that, we'd love to put out many more, but renewal will depend (of course) on how well they sell.

Q] Let’s talk a bit about your Daniel Faust series, there seems to be a grand design at work there. How many books do you have planned? What does your endgame look like?

CS: There is indeed. Right now I project the series will be about twenty books long, give or take. My notes are a rough, blocky road map: I have some stories almost completely outlined, while others are a paragraph or two of notes, and some just a title and a sentence sketch. I'm basically trying to have a clear picture of where I'm going, while leaving enough wriggle room so that if I come up with what I think is a fantastic new idea for a plot, I can make it happen.

The final paragraphs of the final scene of the series have already been written. I know where it all ends. Getting you there someday, and making sure that scene leaves the mark it should, is the hard part.

Q] You currently have two vastly different series ongoing, how do you go about writing them [do you delineate different time periods for writing them or do you write depending on how you feel each day] could you explain your writing methods? And particularly about the discipline required to produce 6 books a year!

CS: One book at a time. The tones between my two series are so different, along with the moods I try to create, jumping between them would cause total whiplash. I try to write 2,000 words a day, every day. Not all of that makes it to the final page: I always end up cutting great chunks of it, and my editor’s pen is crueler than mine.

It’s all about the discipline. Writing is just like going the gym: it’s hard until you make it a habit, but even then it’s never easy. And just like the gym, when you skip a day, it becomes that much easier to skip the next day. And the next.

Q] Many writers have a muse, who directs their writing, and others do not seem to be affected the same way. Which group do you fall into? What is your main motivation and source of inspiration?

CS: Writing is my drug of choice. Piecing together a story, learning and honing my craft, the rush of drawing scenes and words from the air…my motivation is the joy of it. It's hard work, often frustrating work, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.

I suppose my muse is my readership, in a way. When I know people are excited about an upcoming book, it gets me excited to make it the very best I can and try to deliver a great experience for them to enjoy.

Q] Can you tell us more about the world that the Revanche Cycle is set in and some of the series’ major characters? What are the curiosities (geographical, mystical, etc.) of this world?

CS: The world of the Revanche Cycle is a delicate net of power, a dance between the banks and the masters of commerce, the keepers of a vast and unified church, and an expansionist empire with dreams of a grand crusade. And, as the story begins, it's all falling apart. The banks are collapsing, a beloved pope is on his deathbed, and the empire is on the verge of spending itself into bankruptcy.

For some, it's a time of great peril. For the power-hungry, it's a time of opportunity. Conspiracies and strange alliances are in motion, aimed at taking advantage of the coming chaos -- and for one man, to enact an apocalyptic plan of revenge twenty years in the making.

And there is magic, in the shadows, though you'd be wise not to go looking for it. Walk through the wilds alone and you might stumble upon the reveling witches of the Pallid Masque, or the swampy haunts of the Sisterhood of the Noose. And you would witness wonders, then…wonders paid for in pain and blood.

Q] Themes of PTSD, patriarchy, racism & cultural disparities seem to play an important role throughout the Revanche Cycle. How much of this was gleaned from history? And how much of it was from other sources?

CS: Civilizations rise and fall, but people don't change so much, and today's problems look a lot like yesterday's problems. Bringing up PTSD is a great example. A modern-day Marine and a fourteenth-century Condottiere have a lot in common, from bearing the scars of battle (physical and mental), enduring survivor's guilt, and trying to reintegrate into a civilian world that doesn't understand what they've been through.

I use history as a jumping-off point, but I try to evoke historical issues that we're still dealing with today, and that readers might personally relate to. It's an interesting way of thinking about problems and challenges (without turning it into "message fiction," which is no fun for anybody. A good story is a discussion, not a lecture).

Q] You have released Winter’s Reach & The Instruments Of Control within 6 months. Could you give us a progress report on the next book, and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

CS: Right now we’re on track to release book three, titled Terms of Surrender in December  and, tentatively, the fourth and final volume in mid-2016.

Q] In Winter’s Reach, Felix has quite a traumatic sea experience and the description you have used for the sound that precedes the sequence was quite something. Do you have any examples of what that sounded like in your mind?

CS: Imagine a massive pipe organ at the bottom of the sea, twenty stories tall. A mottled finger reaches out and presses down on a single key. The organ plays a sound that could shatter the earth, sending it roaring up to the ocean's surface. It's a message, just for you.

Letting you know that you're about to see the organ-player.

Q] Who are your literary idols and which books are your favorites amongst some of the genres that you read in?

CS: Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Masters of noir. Chandler dragged you through worlds of corruption, and Hammett made language dance. Ernest Hemingway: stripped-down, brutally sparse prose like a boxer's punch. I love Clive Barker's erotic grotesqueries, and the bleeding-edge futurescapes of early William Gibson.

Q] In closing, do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

CS: What do you love? Find it, go for it, and take your life by the horns. Don't wait as long as I did. We only get so many summers.

Also? You need more books.



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