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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Interview with Curtis Craddock (interviewed by Łukasz Przywóski)

Official Author Website
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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery

Q: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is Curtis Craddock? And why should everyone be reading your books?

CC: By day I teach school at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.  My job is to help people, and my philosophy is to do what I can to alleviate the suffering of other people and to know more about the world today than I did yesterday.

I have a wonderful long term sweetheart Donna Hume who is graphic designer, history geek, and all around alpha nerd, and I share my personal space with two huge black cats and two very small dogs.

Q: When and why have you decided to become an author?

CC: It seemed like good idea at the time.

I actually started writing seriously in high school more than thirty years ago. I always loved to read. I actually cut class to go to the library. In 12th grade I took a creative writing class, and my teacher Mrs. Wright assigned us a short story to write.  I wrote the story.

She said, “Okay, you have an A in this class. All you have to do is write more stories and submit them to contests and publications.”

I’ve never looked back.

Q: What are the primary influences in your writing, such as authors you’ve read, or significant events in your life?

CC: The book I’ve re-read the most times in my life is probably Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. When I was young I read it for the adventure. When I was older I read it for the social commentary.  These days it’s one of those books that people-on-the-internet ™ either love or hate all out of proportion to the book or its message. What it taught me as a writer was how to build out from a premise, which is an invaluable skill.

Stylistically the author who’s had the most influence on me is Lois McMaster Bujold.  She does characters better than just about anyone, and her stories are always fun.

I also draw from Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, CJ Cherryh, Neil Gaiman. Carol Berg, Tony Hillerman, Isaac Asimov, and too many others to mention.

Q: The fantasy genre is broad—your writing seems to be more on the innovative, genre-blending end of the spectrum. Can you discuss this? And what draws you to the steampunk aesthetics? 

CC: I don’t actually think of the Risen Kingdoms as steampunk because there’s no steam-powered technology iand it’s not in the regency period or later.

That having been said, I do like the steampunk aesthetic because it moves the story out of a medieval mindset.  A lot of fantasy (by no means all) is very backwards looking. It’s about restoring kings or dynasties, or taking things back or putting them the world back to some previous ideal.

Steampunk and Renaissance/Enlightenment based fiction like the Risen Kingdoms allows for the characters to be more forward looking.  The past is not a sacred land. The world is something they can change and improve, and not all change is bad.

Minor spoiler:  An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is about restoring order to a broken kingdom, but it’s not, ultimately, about putting things back the way they used to be.

Q: Serious writing takes not only a story to tell, but the craft of writing to tell it well—can you comment on your journey as a writer?

CC: Practice, practice practice. I’ve been writing, deliberately trying to improve for more than three decades.  I’m not sure if this makes me really good or just a really slow learner.  Writing isn’t about putting words on a page. It’s about putting ideas, impressions, and images in the reader’s mind.  The hardest part is making the turns from, “This is what I want to say,” to, “This is what I want you to feel".

Q: Tell us a little bit about your writing process. What do you start from? Do you start with a character, an image, or an idea? Talk a little bit about how a novel “grows” for you.

CC: Some writers are careful plotters. Some are daring enough to fly by the seat of their pants. My method is more like three raccoons in a trench coat fighting over a crack pipe.
I generally start with a character with a problem.  The character has to solve the problem and either (a) fail, or (b) create a new problem for themselves in the process.  The character must then change their approach and try again to solve the problem in front of them. Repeat that enough times and you have a story.

This is not to say I don’t have long term big ticket problems for the characters to deal with, it’s just that I have a lot of unexplored country and nothing resembling a map on how to get there.

Q: What’s the hardest thing for you during the whole “writing experience”?

CC: Deadlines. I write slow. More to the point my process is slow. All stories are fundamentally linear; you proceed from one word to the next in a predetermined order until you get to the end. But in order to be believable, the story need to feel like it didn’t have to be linear, as if there were other ways it could have gone. I achieve that by writing a lot of those untaken paths and then pruning back to the one that gets taken. The paths that got removed leave traces of themselves in the word-stream that remains.

This is fun, but, as I said, very slow.

Q: What are the reasons you decided to publish?

CC: I started writing with the intent to publish. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to go into bookstores and find my books on shelves.  I wanted to be a writer.  Ideally I’d like to make my living this way, though I am realistic enough to accept that’s probably not going to happen.

Q: What did you find easy, difficult, or surprising about the publishing process?

CC: I found breaking into the business to be incredibly difficult. When I first started, traditional publishing was pretty much the only game in town. Self publishing did exist, but it was called vanity press for a reason.  The internet was barely a thing at that point. Anyone born after about 1985 literally lives in a different technological age than those of us born before that. They have never lived in a world without the internet.

As a consequence when I started writing my goal was to become a published author by what we now call traditional means: get an agent who will find an editor who will get a book deal.

That remained my goal, even after the asteroid we call the internet hit the Earth.  It changed forever the way we handle information, and information is what books are.

I was very slow to change. In fact, for the most part, I still haven’t. I have a wonderful agent and top notch editor, and I plan on selling my next series the same way I sold my last one.

Q: What was your initial inspiration for The Risen Kingdoms series?

CC: The Risen Kingdoms is a river with a lot of tributaries. It didn’t spring from a single source. I will say that the first scene in An Alchemy of Mirrors was inspired by real events. Louis XIV of France insisted on being present at the birth of  children into important noble families. This had the effect of keeping most high-born women of childbearing age trapped in the Vicinity of Versaille,s and forced their husbands to visit often.

Q: One thing I really enjoyed in reading both Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors and A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery  was the depth of the characters. How did you create them, and did they go through any metamorphosis as you wrote?

CC: Depth of character is created by letting the characters make choices and reflect on the choices both taken and not taken. I keep a lot of the path not taken when I’m exploring their internal lives.

The fun part is when I find out things about them I didn’t know when I started and that I can’t recall putting there. I figure that if a character can surprise me, they can surprise the reader as well.

Q: You write a lot of diverse characters without falling victim to stereotypes. Do you think attitudes about diversity in publishing have shifted, or does the industry still have a ways to go?

CC: I suppose that depends on whether you’re talking about diversity within the industry defined as the people producing the product, or the diversity within the industry defined as the people portrayed by the product.

As for diversity within the industry of producers, I’m a straight white guy, so I cannot and will not presume to speak to the experiences of marginalized people within the industry.  I will say that I advocate for marginalized people whenever the opportunity arises.

As for diversity within the product, I would say it’s improving, but it has plenty of room left to improve.

Q: The main characters in any book are commonly considered a reflection of the author. Is this true in “The Risen Kingdom series”?

CC: Well, they all spring from my imagination fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, so in that sense they are reflections of me, but they also borrow from other people, and in so doing manifest emergent personalities that are quite different from my own.

Q: Who is your favorite character to write, and why? And least favorite?

CC: I like writing all of them. Jean-Claude is usually the easiest to write.  He’s a trickster and the one most likely to cause trouble. Isabelle’s harder to write because (a) she’s more cautious and (b) she’s smarter than I am.  It’s hard to write a character who is genuinely more intelligent than you are.

Q: I really like Grand Leon. It would be amazing to read a novella or a short story from his POV. Would you consider giving us a glimpse of his thinking process?

CC: Grand Leon is very much a pragmatist and a realist. To understand him, you really have to understand his motives. It’s alluded to a couple of times in the story that he’s a self-crowned king. He usurped the throne from his uncle because his uncle was trying to purge all his relatives within striking distance of the throne, a group which included the young Grand Leon.

Two really important things came out of the coup. The first was that Grand Leon learned to choose his allies wisely and to surround himself with competent people. The second thing was that the Temple, which had backed his uncle, refused to acknowledge him as the rightful roi, and kept trying to have him overthrown.

In response to the Temple’s constant meddling, Grand Leon decided to destroy their influence in l’Empire. He can’t get rid of the Temple because the people support it, but he can neutralize it. Since the Temple maintains much of its authority by keeping the various sorcerous bloodlines at each other’s throats, one of his main goals was to create a diverse society in which all the different sorcerous bloodlines could live and work together. He also supplanted Temple run schools with free primary schools, Temple hospitals with royal hospitals, and so on.

As a consequence he’s been unleashing an age of Enlightenment almost by accident.

His primary virtue as leader is that he absolutely despises the aristocracy and the notion of birthright privilege, even if he can’t get rid of either and participates in both. Yet wherever possible, he promotes on merit, and takes steps specifically to annoy and disadvantage people whose only qualifications are being born to the right set of parents.

The result is, he has surrounded himself with highly talented and well motivated people who in turn make him seem like a genius.

Q: You’ve created rich world with a unique magic system. What challenges did you face not just in making it accessible, but in incorporating all the information that needed to be conveyed to make the story work?

CC: One of my pet peeves are stories that involve magic, especially magic that is a day to day occurrence in the world, where the people in that world don’t seem know anything about it.

So when I create a magic system I ask myself. Where did this magic come from? How did people discover it? What do they know about it that is true? What do they believe about it that is s not true?

Once I know that, I ask, “How and in what context do they use it?” and then, “How do they leverage it for maximum effect?”

Once I have this information in hand, the characters themselves become the explainers of magic as they interact with it.

Q: What are the challenges of world building? How have you overcome those?

CC: This is pretty much the same process as the magic building. I start with something I want to talk about culturally, economically, or technologically, figure out some basic pieces fit together. For example, how do skyships affect the economy?  And then I give that knowledge to the characters.  As the characters have cause to think about it, the information get revealed to the reader.

Q: Moving on to the magic, I like the idea that it comes from holy bloodlines. So far you’ve shown us what to expect from Sanguinares, Seelenjager, Goldentongue, Windcallers and Etincelle sorceries. Is there more types of sorcery to explore in your world? 

CC: There is one other named bloodline, the Tidsskygge, sorcerers, and a few more I haven’t developed yet.  In the lore of the world, there are ten canonical sorceries, sometimes referred to as the Decade Sorceries, which are the ones codified by the Temple.

There were actually dozens of different types in the beginning, when the saints emerged from the Vault of Ages, but there weren’t that many saints and most of the bloodlines got attenuated to the point where they can’t produce sorcerers any more, although you still get atavistic throwbacks.
Isabelle’s l’Étincelle sorcery is not one of the Decade. It hasn’t been seen in the world since the days of St Céleste.

Q: What was the most difficult part of writing this series? What was the most enjoyable part?

CC: The most difficult part is getting it done.  For my next project I’m going to do considerably more work plotting before I dive into the actual drafting, just so I don’t find myself jammed up against a deadline.

The most enjoyable part is figuring things out. I know it sounds strange to say it, but I can’t just force the story to go a particular way. It’s too complex a thing to be conceived in its entirely all at once. In order to make it work, I have to figure out its secrets and lay them bare.

Q: If you would be given the chance to rewrite any of the scenes in Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors before publication, would you do it? If yes, what and why?

CC: I think it was Leonardo da Vinci who said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

I would probably rewrite a few things for clarity’s sake, and to presage events in book three that were not conceived of at the time of book one.  I would probably do a lot better job with my French and Spanish terminology and naming conventions.

Q: Would you say that Risen Kingdom series follows tropes or kicks them?

CC: I don’t think you can kick a trope until you’ve put it on the field. I definitely like to turn things on their ears.

I mean this story begins after the world has already been broken.

Isabelle, for example, was conceived with the following question, “What would happen if a Disney Princess actually wanted an arranged marriage?”

Of course the story immediately diverged from there, and Isabelle had very definite ideas about who she was going to become, but kicking the trope was the spark.

Q: Which question about the series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

CC: I wish someone would ask me the following question, “Can we make an HBO series about this series and pay you enough money that you can quit your day job.”

To which I would say, “Yes!”

Q: Is there any message that you have tried to put forth in your writing?

CC: There’s a very strong streak of un-cynical realism in my books.  Heroes see the world as it is and work with what they have to get what they want. The antagonists see the world as it isn’t and try to bend it to their will.

Q: What can we expect in the next book? Certainly the ending gives us an idea where the story may be moving, but give us a few hints!

CC: Chases, escapes, romance, true love, sky battles, a mighty duel, death by pirates, and maybe the end of the world.

Q: Can you name three books you adore as a reader, but that make you feel inadequate as a writer?

A Civil Campaign, by Lois Mc Master Bujold.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R.Tolkien
Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett.

Q: Thank you so much for agreeing to this conversation, Curtis! We greatly appreciate your time and thoughts.

CC: You are welcome. Happy reading.


Anonymous said...

I hope Curtis Craddock writes more books. June 26,2023

Anonymous said...

I've just borrowed an Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors today from the library. I've started to get back into reading more because I have a story I want to tell, and I want to tell it well. I used to read so much I got grounded for it, but haven't had my nose in a book since then. I haven't been entranced or sucked in by a story in so, so long, not since middle school (I'm 21 now.). These books are one of the most delightful surprises I've had in a while.

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