Excerpts from the interview:
‘‘Tolkien is my first and biggest influence. I don’t write like him – things have changed too much to try to emulate that style anymore – but the scope of his world, the depth of it, that’s what I love. I don’t like treading the same ground others have, though. I’ve always tried to push myself to create something new. Epic fantasy with a twist. On the flipside, if you try to make something that’s completely new, it can be hard for readers to relate. I try to create something that has echoes of our world, but that’s still fresh from the fantasy perspective. My first series, The Lays of Anuskaya, was heavily influenced by Muscovite Russia. The setting is completely different geographically – it’s secondary world – but it’s influenced by their arts and the cultural mindset. Once I decided on that approach, I tried to absorb a lot of the art, culture, food, weaponry, terminology, that sort of thing, beforehand. I’m no historian, but I tried to get enough of a flavor of that time period to do the world justice. I spend most of my time working on the history of the world, how the magic might have originated, and how people use it. In the books, one group, the Aramahn, are a peaceful people, generally. They have a certain type of magic that others don’t. Other people want to use their magic, to control it, and because the Aramahn are peaceful, they can be preyed upon, to a degree. That’s more interesting to me than the magic itself. That’s what I spend a lot of time on, understanding the bedrock of the story, so that by the time I’m into the writing itself, if I get lost, or I’m trying to push the boundaries of the story, all the work I did worldbuilding will guide me in finding something interesting to write about.
‘‘My new series, The Song of the Shattered Sands, has an Arabian Nights, Persian-esque feel to it. I’d been wanting to do this type of thing for so long that you can see it in the third book of my previous trilogy, which is set partially in a vast desert. I started playing with that idea there, and the Aramahn are based on a Persian culture as well. So it was a fairly small leap to get from that to the new series. The first book is Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, and it’s set, perhaps not surprisingly, in the city of Sharakhai, a city-state in this huge desert at the center of four powerful kingdoms that can’t easily trade, due to mountainous terrain. The easiest way to transport goods is through the desert. The 12 kings rose to power and now control trade and traffic. They’ve become extremely wealthy from it. They’re also very long lived because of a pact they made with the gods, and they’re ruthless about maintaining their control. They’ve made a lot of enemies along the way, which is always a rich bed for a story to grow in.”
‘‘Tim Powers insists, ‘I don’t say anything with my stories.’ I was listening to a panel with him and Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay took exception and said, ‘We can’t get away from that completely, Tim.’ Tim agreed, to a degree. Even if you’re looking to explore a certain thing, like Paolo Bacigalupi does with climate change, you don’t have to make it didactic. You can make people think about a subject and look at the potential consequences, while telling a perfectly fine story. Saladin Ahmed is a fan of the Game of Thrones TV show, but after an episode with a rape, he criticized it, and later tweeted, ‘I can be a fan and still criticize.’ People are entitled to their opinions. They’re entitled to feel how they feel when they read something. We were talking about this on my podcast Speculate recently. When you write something, you owe it to yourself and your readers to educate yourself on what you’re writing about, whether that’s sex, race relations, different religions, whatever. At least you know going in what you chose to do and why you chose it. After that point, live with the consequences. Let people have their opinions. They have a right to say what they feel. It’s frustrating, sometimes, if that one element of a work becomes all that people talk about. That rape is now the entirety of Game of Thrones. I’m not saying everybody thinks that way, but it feels like it sometimes. People who haven’t seen the show have heard about the rape, and that’s all they know about it. I think that happens over and over again with fantasy, too.”
‘‘While working on book two of Shattered Sands, I’m working on a proposal for my next series. As I said, I like to let stories germinate for years. Last year I started working on a new one I’m calling The False King. It’s going to involve genius loci and how they manifest in humans. The land has avatars –- the land and its magic manifests in some people, and vice versa. It’s sort of a feedback loop. For a long time that was a simple, symbiotic, healthful thing, but then one group learns to control the magic, to devastating effect. They create an empire using the ability to control the land and the magic within it, and eventually, old and new crash against one another in spectacular and unexpected ways. The only other project I have going is an upper middle grade novel called Winterwatch. It’s a Norse-inspired adventure for kids. That’s written and done, and I’m trying to find a home for it. It’s a whole new market, so it’s hard to shift. You have to break in all over again.
‘‘I run the Speculate podcast, at SpeculateSF.com. We specialize in fantasy and science fiction. My favorite part of the show is the triptychs, as we call them. Right now we’re going through The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. We do one episode where we review a piece of fiction, then we interview the author in another episode, and then we talk about writing technique in the third. It’s a nice way for us to dig in, to get meaty about it. I’ve learned a lot from that. It gives me time to really break things apart and learn more.’’