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Friday, November 10, 2017

Interview with Craig Schaefer [Part II] (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

Continuing on from yesterday, here's part II of our grand interview with Craig. Herein he talks about the various intricacies of his series, author branding, Tarantino comparisons and more...

Q] All your series have complex female characters. Be they be a protagonist (Harmony, Jennifer) antagonist (Navarasi, Nessa) or even a conflicted character (Caitlin, Hedy, Livia), they are fascinating nonetheless? What’s your thought process in writing such wonderfully complex, yet lethal women?

CS: I would say that it’s the same process I undergo for creating male characters – give them motivation, desires, fears, an inner life – but there’s a little more to it than that.

Female representation is really important to me. I exert that worldview into my books by making sure female characters are the driving force they deserve to be, just like in the real world. They can be heroes, villains...sometimes just figuring out their place in life, like people do. They’ve gotta be real people. My bottom line is, until fleshed-out and complex female characters are considered the absolute baseline expectation for any writer – just like male characters are now – there’s still a lot of work to be done. It should be so common that nobody even notices.

Q] Even though your series embraces a number of urban fantasy tropes, you also have made a rather strong effort to twist reader expectations and keep them entertained. What are your thoughts on these tropes in general and how did you decide what tropes you wanted to utilize and which you didn’t?

CS: Here’s where I make people mad at me, if I haven’t already: I don’t actually like urban fantasy all that much, as a genre. There are some urban fantasy authors doing fantastic work out there and I’m proud to call several of them friends of mine, but the vast majority of the field leaves me cold. I haven’t even read most of the Dresden Files (though I have huge respect for Jim Butcher as an author, which is why I gave him that tiny shout-out in the fourth Faust novel. Couldn’t take my lead character to Chicago and not tip my hat…) What excites me as a writer is the potential that comes from mingling genres – and, well, when I mingle fantasy and anything in the modern world, that makes me an urban fantasy writer.

The early entries in the Faust series are the most traditionally-UF-ish of my books, because I was finding my voice and confidence (I still am, but I’m a little closer now) and I felt like I “had” to adhere to certain tropes for the books to sell; for instance, making Faust a detective-ish character – something I enjoyed poking fun at in The White Gold Score – rather than the occult gangster he was intended to be and has finally blossomed into. At the same time, because I didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle, I set a ground rule that still exists today: no vampires, no werewolves, no fairies.

I largely wanted to avoid the classic “kitchen sink” urban-fantasy issue, where every monster and mythological beastie ever dreamed actually exists, and the gods of every pantheon are dropping by for tea. I feel that this is a case where more is a lot less; supernatural creatures should be rare, cool, special things that have a reason to exist and a defined place in the world. When it comes to deities, make that double. Triple, even.

Q] How much do you let readers’ feedback inform your writing? For instance, one conflicting point about the Harmony Black series was the relationship between Cody & Harmony. Is this something which you factor into your future writings?

CS: I do listen to my readers’ feedback, to an extent. I’m generally of the stance that if one person loves or hates a particular story element, that’s just their particular take. If a thousand readers love or hate a thing, that thing needs to be looked at and evaluated going forward.

Cody came about an inch away from literally getting stuffed in a refrigerator. (And believe me, I would have been smiling when I wrote it.)

That said, at the end of the day, I have to be true to the story I want to tell and there’s some feedback that I just have to decline. The biggest ongoing complaint I get about the Faust series is that people want:
 1) lots more spellcasting, like in every chapter,
2) Faust’s magic to be bumped up to superhero levels, and
3) elaborate exposition on the rules of how magic works.

None of that is ever going to happen. That’s not my setting, that’s not my story. And other writers do a great job with those concepts! There’s definitely a place in fantasy for, for instance, lovingly-defined magic systems with elaborately-structured rules straight out of a tabletop RPG, and some authors can have a ton of fun doing it. I’m just not one of ‘em.

Q] One of my favorite writers James Rollins had mentioned his “rule of five” about when to become a full time writer? You were working your day job when you first few books were released. When did you make the jump to full time writer and with regards to Jim, did you find something similar when you took that leap?

CS: Just about! I hadn’t heard of the “rule of five” at the time, but I did have about five books in the Faust series out when I made the leap to full-time writing. It’s good advice; I wouldn’t suggest anyone do the same (or go into any self-employed endeavor) without that plus a solid nest egg in case of emergencies.

That said, quitting the corporate job was a spur of the moment thing. I was in a job that was killing me (I literally had health complications from stress), and one Saturday I had a long talk with a friend of mine. She asked how much I was making from my books each month, and then she asked what the bare minimum of cash I needed to survive and pay my monthly bills was. Number A was bigger than Number B.

Then she said, “Craig, you’re quitting your job first thing on Monday morning. I’ll be calling at nine to make sure you did it.”

Sometimes we all need a little push from a good friend, to do what needs doing.

Q] Another aspect that’s unique about your book is how diverse it is genre-wise. I mean there are elements of noir, mystery, fantasy, horror, sci-fi, et cetera. Personally, I loved that variety, but for some readers it might be a turnoff. What are your feelings on books that fit firmly into a single classification as opposed to those that are hard to categorize?

CS: Oh, it’s definitely a turnoff for some readers, and it makes marketing a pain in the butt, but like I said earlier – as a writer, that’s where so much potential for excitement lies. Why color inside the lines when you can use the whole page? Cookie-cutter is easy, and easy is the enemy of art. Worse, it’s boring. My number-one job is to entertain my readers, and mixing things up is one of the best weapons in my arsenal.

For instance, the second Faust series arc runs from a jewelry heist, to a prison-break story, to a Vegas mob war. The Harmony series swings from hunting monsters in small-town America to uncovering government conspiracies. I never, ever want a reader to say, “Eh, this book was okay, but it was just like the two I just read.”

To me, characters are key. My objective is to get you into my characters. If I can convince you to love or hate them, all the better, so long as you want to know what happens next and spend some time hanging out with them. Once that’s established, we can have all kinds of fun by mixing up the adventures they inevitably find themselves in, willingly or otherwise. If I can’t hook you with my characters, it doesn’t matter what the plot is or what genre elements I employ, because I’ll lose you as a reader.

Q] For some authors it’s easier writing their second series, while for others it’s more difficult. How was it for you, and did you learn anything when writing the Faust books that helped you prepare for The Revanche Cycle & the Harmony Black books

CS: I made so many mistakes in my early books. So many. Most writers can say the same, I think; no matter how many practice runs you make before your debut novel drops, there’s no escaping the learning experiences in store for you. I’d love to get a giant “do-over” and start from scratch with all I’ve learned since I began, but since life doesn’t work that way, I have to hope readers bear with me.

A lot of that is just style and structure. Figuring out what works, what doesn’t, finding your narrative voice. You can only learn writing by writing (and reading), and you only get better with practice and hard work. I’m still improving, and I hope to keep improving until the day I die.

Beyond the all-important task of finding my voice, the Faust books gave me a precious insight that was vital for the Revanche series, and it’s something I hope every writer discovers: the awareness that I didn’t have to censor myself. Dark as the books are, I had so many “Oooh, I can’t write that” moments where I had to fight to get words down on the page, because I was afraid people would trash the books (or gosh, think bad things about me!)

Yeah, turns out that doesn’t matter. When I got a one-star review calling The Long Way Downdegenerate and vile filth,” sales jumped for two days straight. I gradually realized that an author’s job is honesty; even though the story is fiction, it still has to ring with truth, and that means telling it the way it needs to be told. And for every person who hates it, somebody’s going to love it for the exact same reason. You just have to find your crowd, the folks who dig what you’re laying down, and treasure them like gold.

As far as what people think of me, that also doesn’t matter. The thing is, a writer’s books are a reflection of their inner landscape, and people generally don’t separate art from artist. People are going make whatever assumptions they want about me based on my writing, and I’m cool with that. To quote Pirates of the Caribbean, “…but you have heard of me.”

Q] One of the quirky things I noticed is that you have things in your book which aren’t quite explained. For example I have always wondered what “NP” suffix means when it was mentioned on Faust’s bounty declaration?

CS: I actually cut a joke about that from the original draft.
It means ‘no problem.’”
No, but in your case, it probably should.”

Q] You have co-written this short story titled “Sweet, Blissful, Certainty” in  the Urban Allies anthology. Please tell how this collaboration with Steven Saville came to be? How did you guys write this story and will there be touchbacks to this story in the future books?

CS: I was invited to participate in the project by the anthology’s organizer, Joe Nassise. Each story in the anthology was a team-up; I’m not sure how he picked me to work with Steven Saville, but I’m glad he did – Steven is a really cool guy, and never having written a collaboration before, it was a great learning experience. The story was a crossover between the Faust series and his new book Glass Town, hindered slightly by the fact that he hadn’t read my books and Glass Town had been delayed by the publisher, so I hadn’t read his either. So we started with a long, long chat where we briefed each other, gave run-downs of our respective worlds, and brainstormed over a way to bring them together.

After that, we broke the story down into chunks, retreated to write our respective bits, then passed the manuscript back and forth as we worked to try and blend them into a cohesive short. I liked the final result, though I was a little irked that the publisher, wanting a more vague resolution, cut my original ending. As it stands, it’s a weird little piece I consider mostly out of official continuity – there’s a couple of references to heaven, for instance, which doesn’t exist in my setting – but I learned a lot from it and made some new friends.

Q] In some of your previous interviews you have talked about author branding and the experience each of your books provide for the readers and your fans. On your site you have the title “Dark fantasy author” besides your name. Can you talk more about this brand which you are building and why readers should pay attention to it?

CS: People respond to taglines. Mystery author, science-fiction author, etc.; it’s shorthand that lets you know what to expect right off the bat. I write fantasy with dark, non-family-friendly overtones, whether it’s set in modern times or another world altogether, so that seemed like the best way to sum myself up.

Building a brand is all about reader expectations. Stephen King is a great example: whether he’s writing straight-up horror, psychological thrillers or dipping into crime novels, you always know when you’re reading his work. Brand is a mix of recurring themes, a certain style and narrative voice, the elements of a book that transcend the plot. My job, essentially, is to make sure repeat readers know what they’re getting when they pick up a Craig Schaefer novel, and deliver a great, consistent experience every time.

Q] I must confess reading about Justine and Juliette for the first time, they felt a bit Tarantino-esque. Upon learning of their origin of their names, it seemed so spot on. Can you tell us how these two came to be within your imagination?

CS: I’m a huge Tarantino fan, so I consider that great praise indeed. And there’s definitely a link there: while I was working on The Long Way Down, I felt the series was going to need a little comic relief to offset the bleakness. And of course, the humor had to be pitch-black. Specifically, I was thinking of (can I spoil a 20-year-old movie?) the bit in Pulp Fiction when Marvin gets shot in the face. It’s out-of-nowhere, so brutal and so funny, and then you feel bad for laughing, then you keep laughing, and it’s so pitch-perfect with the rest of the movie.

That’s more or less what I aim for with Justine and Juliette. They’re ditzy, they’re snarky, they’re funny, and then you get something like the basement scene in The Living End and you have this realization of holy crap, they’re torturing this guy to death, and this is their idea of a good time. They’re a pair of twin pistols that could go off at any minute, and you can only hope they’re not casually pointed in your face when it happens.

Q] One of the crucial connecting pointers within all your worlds is the presence of the cutting knives in them? Due to one of the revelations in Double Or Nothing with the Woman In Red mentioning her nine daughters. So does this mean there are only nine knives in existence?

CS: There are nine true knives. Various worlds have developed lesser copies and imitations; for instance, most of the Owl’s coven used cutting knives for getting to and from the Dire Mother’s glade, but those weren’t originals (except possibly for the Owl’s, which was handed down from her mother). The true ones are capable of things we haven’t begun to see yet, though people who have read Double or Nothing have a pretty good inkling.

Q] Another of those funny things I’ve noticed two different series is that the Mourner of the red rocks & sisters of the noose both share a resemblance in their dressing and creepy factor? Are they related in any way or was that just a coincidence?

CS: Yep! Not a coincidence: the Mourner is a former Sister of the Noose. She’ll be appearing in the upcoming Wisdom’s Grave trilogy, which will dig a little more into that backstory by the final book (and the Sisters may be making a return, too…)

Q: You have currently two active series, one finished and a new trilogy that you’re working on and will be releasing soon. With so many different projects that you’re juggling, do you ever feel overwhelmed? What keeps you motivated?

CS: The only bit that overwhelms me is keeping all the balls juggling in the right order; I’m a hybrid author, some of my books being self-published while others come out through a publisher, and since they all share a common universe it can make timing seriously tricky. For instance, a Harmony book might get shuffled around on the publisher’s release schedule, and now there’s going to be references to something that didn’t happen yet in the Faust books or vice-versa unless I quickly turn in rewrites.

Motivation, though? That’s easy. This is who I am. Writing is hard work, if you’re doing it right, but it’s also my art. Is there anything better to live for? The process of creation is joy. Putting smiles on my readers’ faces – that’s joy, too. That’s where the real magic is.

Q: Do you have any parting thoughts or comments that you’d like to share with our readers?

CS: Two years ago I became a full-time writer, achieving my lifelong dream. If a jerk like me can do it, then whatever your dream is, you can do it too. Don’t give up.

(Unless your dream is, like, killing a lot of people. Don’t do that. Definitely don’t tell people I said you could do it.)



Melissa (My words and pages) said...

Great to hear all this.

I have to say, I get irritated at men saying they don't know how to write woman. Really? We are all people. Your take on it is wonderful. That's what everyone should think.

Great and inspiring, as is your writing. Thank you!


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