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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Interview with Craig Schaefer [Part I] (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Long Way Down 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The White Gold Score 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Redemption Song 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Living End 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of A Plain-Dealing Villain
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Killing Floor Blues
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Castle Doctrine
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Winter's Reach 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Instruments Of Control 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harmony Black
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Red Knight Falling
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Glass Predator
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Double Or Nothing
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Cold Spectrum

Craig Schaefer is an author whose books I’m besotted with entirely. It’s rare for me to enjoy somebody’s works to such an extent and it’s fair to say that Craig Schaefer has joined a select few authors in my mind whose books I will read without any hesitation. I’ve always wanted to ask Craig some very specific questions about his books and the characters within as well as his plans for the future.

He was very kind to answer all of them and since there were so many. I’ll be splitting them into two parts. So without any further ado, enjoy part I…

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic Craig. In your previous interview you spoke about how and when you decided to turn yourself into a wordsmith. Can you talk to us about your childhood & early adult life? What were your some of your hobbies?

CS: Childhood? Shitty. I was a nerd in the 80s, before it was cool to be a nerd. It’s kind of amazing now, with so many “geek” pastimes blown up and gone mainstream; our biggest movies are based on comic books, Vin Diesel talks fondly about playing Dungeons and Dragons, video games are as popular as TV really is a different world. It’s hard to remember that there was a time when computer games were a weird and arcane hobby, comics were considered the domain of pimple-faced basement-dwellers, and D&D was a gateway to Satanism.

(This is also why I have zero patience for modern-day geeks who want to dangle from a cross and pretend to be social outcasts. No, you aren’t. No. You aren’t. All this stuff we love is cool now. Be happy about it, damnit.)

Like most writers, reading was an early and voracious hobby. I more or less lived in the local library; it was my safe harbor, and the gateway to a hundred worlds. When I discovered role-playing games, I latched onto those as well; they were an early creative outlet, and weeks spent lovingly detailing my campaign worlds were an early taste of the joys of writing.

Q] I had read that from the age of four was when you realized that you wanted to become a writer. What was the delay in you finally realizing your wish?

CS: Partially, getting my life together. My mental illness (obsessive-compulsive disorder and mild depression) went undiagnosed through my childhood and young-adult life. It wasn’t until I moved out on my own and grew a little that I was able to figure out that something was wrong with my head, and that I needed to do something about it.

It always feels awkward, talking about that. But that’s why I talk about it. Because I know – because some have told me so – that a number of my readers are grappling with mental illness as well. And despite the ongoing social stigma, there’s nothing to be ashamed about that, any more than one would be ashamed of diabetes or a broken leg. So I need to be open about it in the hopes that other people feel safe to be open about it, and that’s how we collectively make that stigma go into the trashbin of history where it belongs.

From there it was just…life. Working paycheck to paycheck, watching the weeks slip away and turn to months and turn to years. I needed the motivation to find the discipline and go at a writing career with everything inside of me. And eventually, the weight of the years and the hunger that never went away just peaked, and gave me the push I so desperately needed, and here I am.

Q] You have often spoken about how much planning goes into your books. I wanted to ask you how did the Daniel Faust series develop in your mind? What was the original spark? What were your inspirations for it?

CS: As I recall, I was in the middle of a reading binge, swinging between crime novels and horror (my two favorite genres). I had just read an Elmore Leonard novel and a Clive Barker novel back to back, and I found myself thinking, “Dang, I love both of these writers so much, wouldn’t it be amazing if they wrote a book together?”

I’m not going to claim I’m anywhere near Leonard and Barker’s level (someday, if I keep working at it, maybe), but that was the seed of the Daniel Faust series. It grew out of the desire to read a horror-crime series, and in the finest punk-rock tradition, since I couldn’t find one, I did it myself. (Also in the punk rock tradition, my first attempts were seriously rough and unpolished, but I hope I’ve improved my skills since then.)

Q] One of the funny things I’ve noticed is that you have never quite described Daniel Faust’s appearance entirely. You have described Harmony quite a bit but not Faust why is that?

CS: Part of it is the difficulty of working a physical description into a first-person narrative. You can always have the character look in a mirror, but, ugh. Really? I mean, I’ve done it – I think every writer’s done it at some point – but I hate falling back on that technique. Beyond that, I think (I can’t prove it) that a more vaguely-defined appearance works better for a first-person story. You’re already asking your reader to put their mind in this character’s brain-space, and you want to do anything possible to make that identification easier.

Also, Daniel is the kind of guy who blends into a crowd (all the better to slip up behind you and snatch your wallet, or stick a gun in your back). When he appears in the upcoming book Sworn to the Night, his physical description largely boils down to “a wave of chestnut hair and a cruel slash of a smile,” which is all people usually remember five minutes after meeting him.

Q] So far we have had only snippets about Daniel’s past (abusive father, younger brother, been possessed about 30 times, etc.) In about seven books, one novella and three short stories, only one was a prequel-ish look into his recent past. Why have you been so coy in revealing more about his past, his family & his younger formative years?

CS: Partially because Daniel thinks about those days as little as possible. Largely, though, it’s in service to the overarching series plot. Daniel’s little brother Teddy is going to play a big, important role in the series, but I couldn’t bring him “on stage” until the time was just right and I’d laid the narrative elements I’m going to need later. (That said, the time is just about right now. Teddy’s making his first non-flashback appearance either in 2018’s The Neon Boneyard or the book right after that one.)

Q] One of the most consistent facts that is mentioned in the DF books and especially to Faust is that he’s got one messed up moral compass. Now while it’s easy to say that it’s entirely his choice. I wanted to see what you thought of Bentley & Corman’s influences on him. Sure they saved his life and made him what he is today but are they without blame in all of Daniel’s train wrecks?

CS: Oh, they definitely played a part. As semi-retired grifters, they took Daniel’s raw talent – both as a magician and as a criminal – and refined it into real ability. When con games, social engineering, and cracking security are part of your day-to-day curriculum, not to mention the arts of dark magic, you’re not gonna turn out as a model citizen or enjoy a particularly stable life.

Q] One solid feature of all your series is that all of them feature excellent worldbuilding. What is it about worldbuilding that you love, and what are the keys to successfully crafting such a believable, yet fantastical world like that in the Revanche cycle or even the one shared by Faust or Harmony?

CS: I think you’ve always got to know more than you show. One mistake some fantasy authors make is doing a ton of worldbuilding, and making sure every damn bit of it is on the page. The history of Castle Zyzagoria and the war that shook its foundations 450 years ago might have nothing to do with the plot at hand, but here’s a two-page infodump all about it. As a writer, that history might be important to you, and it might even inform little background details or descriptions, but that doesn’t mean it has to be shared with the readers.

In my opinion, the purpose of worldbuilding isn’t to create giant festoons of detail and lore; it’s to create a credible, consistent setting that will make readers say “Sure, that makes sense, and I could imagine living there.” It’s spice, and just like spices in cooking, the correct ingredient in a tiny amount can go a long way toward flavoring a dish just right. Dump in fistfuls of everything on your spice rack just because you can, and what you’ll get is an inedible mess.

But going back to my first point, you do need to know this stuff for yourself. I had mapped out the cosmology of my shared world long before any of it hit the page, because I needed to know where I was headed narratively and what the boundaries and rules of my universe looked like. Little details can be made up on the fly, but the big questions and mysteries of your story’s setting should be hashed out before you type “Chapter One.”

Q] Talking about our world, one of the things that are mentioned in the background is the “Cold Peace” and the infernal courts? How do the courts work? How many courts are there in total spread throughout the world? Will we get a world infernal courts map (something like this)?

CS: How do they work? Badly, with severe structural dysfunction! Imagine the worst office you’ve ever worked in, filled with back-stabbing coworkers who are out to steal credit for your efforts, stall your career advancement, and possibly murder you. And despite that, you still give 110% to the team, because you know that if your court shows any sign of outward weakness then all of your rivals will swoop in and carve up your territory (and you) in a heartbeat.

I’d love to do a full map of infernal territory at some point. Actually, I’d love to do a ton of supplemental material. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing up a tabletop RPG, which would also act as an unofficial companion of sorts to my books; it’s something I’ll think more about later next year when my schedule has a little breathing-room, but there’s a ton of logistics involved in that kind of project (playtesters, artists, printing, etc.) Maybe I’ll do a Kickstarter or something. We’ll see!

Q] Another funny aspect I’ve noticed in the Faust & Harmony books is that none of the main cast of characters are truly religious besides Halima. I was wondering in such a complex world/universe as yours how do your characters square with their faith with the knowledge of the demon courts/magic/etc.?

CS: Well, it’s not a happy universe. Hell is a concrete, real place. Heaven, as far as anyone knows, is not. The few angelic beings anyone recalls seeing are violently insane, and if there’s any kind of higher power out there, it’s utterly silent. Faced with that kind of worldview, it’s little wonder that most people who are clued-in don’t spend much time in church.

There have been creatures claiming to be gods at various points in history; the Enemy has admitted to using that trick on other worlds, for instance, and there’s the “faded gods” Circe warns about, but that raises the interesting (to me, anyway) question of who and what kind of entity is qualified to be called a god. It’s a loaded word that’s meant so many things to so many faiths and cultures throughout history.

And then, of course, there’s the Lady in Red

Q] Now with the last couple of books in the Harmony Black & Daniel Faust series, there have been revelations that all your books were connected. Supposedly thirteen characters are involved in the “cosmic story”. In the Revanche Cycle, two characters (the Witch & Knight) were present on that world. Were there any other characters from the cosmic story who were marooned on the same world?

CS: None that appeared in the story by name. Very early in my outlining, I thought about making beleaguered nobleman Felix Rossini one of the characters in the First Story, but jettisoned that because it clashed with the underlying theme. Without spoiling anything, Felix’s final ending is meant to be both cyclical and very definite at the same time; the idea that he’d someday reincarnate and repeat felt wrong, and a disservice to the character. Felix’s story ends when the final book says it does, exactly how the book says it does.

(Also, there are a lot of parallel worlds, and the Enemy getting imprisoned utterly screwed up the mechanics of the universe. The twelve other characters have been scattered all over the place…until recently.)

Q] Following on a similar line of thought, were there any other characters present on Earth previously when all the characters were scattered throughout the cosmos? And Now are all the characters on earth now that the Enemy is centered here.

CS: Well, Carolyn Saunders (the Scribe) is present and accounted for, as is the Prophet (who appeared in The Killing Floor Blues) and the Thief (the title currently and unwillingly held by Daniel Faust). The others have either arrived or are slowly filtering in across the wheel of worlds, in various stages of “waking up.” With the Enemy freed and loose on our planet, the cycle is reasserting itself for the first time since he was imprisoned – which means we’re on the road to the apocalypse, just like a hundred worlds before us, if he can’t be stopped once more.

Q] In The Castle Doctrine, it was revealed that there are supposedly 13 characters of the cosmic story, of which ten were named. Is that the entire number? and besides the Thief, Paladin, Scribe, Witch, Knight, Enemy, Prophet, Killer, Drifter & Salesman) who are the remaining three?

CS: Yep, there are thirteen in all. As far as who the last ones are, I’m keeping silent on that for now. Largely because there are six possibilities in my outline, for those three slots, and it’s going to come down to where they’re needed in the plot.

Q] I recall in one of your blog posts talking about character depth, you had mentioned that one of your characters was Transgender but you never revealed it because it didn’t matter to the story. You have always known about it and would you care to reveal who that character is?

CS: I’m still working out how to handle that. It’s a minor character, and bringing it up feels like box-checking or tokenism if I can’t seamlessly make it part of the story. So it’ll keep until I can do it right and with respect. (By way of comparison, a character was revealed to be asexual in Double or Nothing; I knew she was from the time of her first appearance back in Redemption Song, but there was never a reason for her to talk about it until then so it just didn’t come up.)

MW: The second part of this in-depth interview will be posted tomorrow so you can watch out for that :)

NOTE: Woman In Red digital artwork courtesy of Florian Mecl.


Melissa (My words and pages) said...

Great interview. Amazing work by an amazing author, all his books. (Which...I need to get back to Daniel's series. I've been moving slow on all reading fronts - audio and print.)

Always great to hear everything. And yes, '80's-'90's was a rough time to be a nerd. I felt the pain and I wasn't as deep into nerdom as others, although I was lumped in that group. I'm amazed at how cool being a nerd is now. Like in the movie remake of 21 Jump Street. lol.

Thanks for sharing!


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