Thursday, 6 May 2010

Interview with Blake Charlton (already posted to Fan Lit)

Hi all!

The following interview has already been posted to Fan Lit (and a giveaway of Blake Charlton's debut novel - for US readers only - is taking place there right now. Click your mouse to FanLit to enter!)

AMANDA: Let's get down to some serious questions straight away: It is no secret at all that you suffer from dyslexia - in fact, you're loud, proud and very supportive of all those organisations helping to assist the people who are afflicted by this disability. Was there a particular moment when you first realised you were different from the other kids? Or was it something picked up by your parents?

BLAKE: I clearly remember waiting after class while my grandmother was called into a conference, maybe in first grade, possibly the end of kindergarten. I'm not sure how, but I knew it was because I wasn't able to do some of the basic things other children did. My mother tells a better story. I don't know if it's true, but mothers are insistent in these matters. According to her, there was a reading exercise that involved reading cards with simple words on them to the class. Apparently I would watch the other children, memorise the order of words, and then repeat it when it was my turn. No one, it seemed, had picked up that I couldn't read... until one day I accidentally dropped the cards. I saw that their order hadn't changed, and so picked them up and started "reading" them. The problem being that I was holding them upside down.

Not far into first grade, I was pulled out of the classroom for extensive testing. By then, I knew something was up. At the time, I was mortified at being identified as different. But now, I realise how fortunate I was to have been diagnosed so early. I've heard other Learning Disabled folks talk about "generation zero" as being the first wave of students who were tested and diagnosed early on. I feel very fortunate that I was among that number.

AMANDA: Speaking of being identified as different - we all know kids can be cruel: did you find yourself marked out by them or bullied?

BLAKE: Riding the short bus was a drag, and a lot of the children in non special-ed classrooms would mark us out when we were getting off of the bus. I had it easy compared to some of our peers who used wheelchairs or other assistance technology. Being visibly different made them easier targets. But, as you note, most everyone is at sometime subject to the cruelty of children; the harder part for younger disabled people, I think, is how we mark ourselves internally, how we separate ourselves from "normal" children. It's a subtle process, and (for me at least) took a long time to recognise.

AMANDA: Do you have any advice for parents whose kids are reluctant readers?

BLAKE: The particulars of the case would help. But generally, I can suggest letting younger children see you read and telling them how much you enjoy it. For older children - always the trickier ones - it might be helpful to change media and material. Some people are visually wired and want to hold a book, while others love being read to and audiobooks. Perhaps offer to buy a few downloaded audiobooks for the child's iPod or phone. I'm a big fan of comic books (though I sadly don't have time to read any myself lately) and think any child who shows interest in comic books should be encouraged. Books similar to the comic books might be suggested.

AMANDA: Taking a small sidestep, and dealing with the way in which your dyslexia affects your writing, do you find a need for more alpha/beta readers to approve first drafts?

BLAKE: Probably yes? I'm not sure how many readers other authors go through. I do know that when proofing a manuscript, I need another pair of eyes to catch errors involving homophones (words with different spellings but the same sounds e.g. carat, caret and carrot). I'm extra nice to my proofreader friends right before I have to turn in a manuscript.

AMANDA: Finally on the subject, and just for fun, do you have any favourite or loathed words (in terms of meanings or just how damn hard they are for you to spell)?

BLAKE: Just one? I'm breaking into a sweat just trying to narrow a list down to ten favorite words. If I have to - and given that I'm currently piecing all the different parts of an early draft together - I'll pick the word "concinnity" n. harmony in the arrangement or interarrangement of parts with respect to a whole.

My least favorite words are all determined by illogical orthography. One might suppose that any word ending in -ough should end in the same sound. But we have dough, bough, enough. The 'ff' sound at the end of 'enough' in particular makes me rant about English words being stupid. But of course, modern English has borrowed plenty of words that drive me insane. Chief among them is 'bureau' from the French. I actually just had to Google search my approximation of that word to find out how to spell it.

AMANDA: Let's deal a little with the book itself - it's been receiving some glowing reviews including one from our very own Robert T. In fact, Robert wanted to ask the following question: Spellwright has one of the most imaginative and complex magic systems I've ever read in a fantasy novel. Where did the idea for it come from? How did it evolve over the years?

BLAKE: During my days as a rabid pre-med undergraduate, I spent an obscene amount of time in the library thinking about two things: chemistry and English literature. Years struggling with dyslexia had given me a sense of how fragile written language is, how easily its meaning could be corrupted, and how illogical and imprecise it is. And yet my love of fantasy had shown me how beautiful it could be. Tolkien was fond of saying that he created Middle Earth for his dreamed-up languages, not the other way around. Meanwhile, my studies in biochemistry revealed how biopolymers ( like nucleotides in DNA and polypeptides in proteins) form something analogous to a written language. In a sense, they consist of letters and words that might be translated or transcribed. They might be rendered useless or harmful by a misspelling - a mutation.

In one particularly dull English class, I began to wonder what if written languages were more like molecular languages? What if you could peel a paragraph off the page and make it physically real? Could you pick your teeth with a sentence fragment? Thrust a sharply worded invective at an enemy's throat? How would physical language shape culture, technology, history?

As my daydream grew I escaped my cold, pre-med self and remembered the wonder that only good speculative literature imparts. Tolkien created Middle Earth for his languages; could I imagine a world built by - not around - its languages? Instantly my disability provided the answer.

AMANDA: Do you think there is a particular importance to creating a unique and comprehensive magic system?

BLAKE: It's a fine point, but rather than particular 'importance', I'd say a particular 'potential' to creating a unique magic system. The creation and adherence to such systems is rare, partially because it is difficult to do, partially because it is not necessary to write a deeply moving or entertaining book. Whatever magic-system an author creates, the plot and characters are going to be more important. That said, in the creation of a comprehensive, megawatt magic system the author may create an analogy for the scientific laws that govern our existence. That allows the author to write about something that is simultaneously strange and familiar.

Dune is about traveling across vast stretches of space, and the addiction to petroleum that allows this to happen. Robert Jordan's One Power is at once about a male and a female magic and about the battle of the sexes. In creating an original magic system an author creates a literary space in which a story can be told with multiple layers of meaning.

There's been a rise of little-magic-much-brutality-moral ambiguity fantasy. It's great and gritty stuff. Most often in such books, magic is scarce or unpredictable. The sympathetic characters rarely (if ever) live very long or succeed. It's an interesting development because rather than creating a comprehensive magic system to explore different layers of meanings, it proposes a diminished or random magic system to explore meaningless. I love reading these gritty fantasies. But I'm very happy to write classic, megawatt magic system fantasy. Not too many other people are doing it right now, and it allows me to explore big flashy ideas like language, meaning, and the fundamental components of life.

AMANDA:You spent nearly 10 years writing and developing Spellwright . Will you be able to keep a tighter schedule for Spellbound ?

BLAKE: Most definitely. In fact, I have a ticking time bomb under me called student debt. I have the rest of this academic year (the medical academic year starts in June) to write full-time and then another full academic year as a research assistant for the Stanford Department of Internal Medicine. I HAVE to finish both books in the trilogy before then or I think the federal government turns me into a goon. What's more I learned a lot from writing that first novel over and over again. I'm much better at stream lining the described technical aspects of my magic system. Of course my work will need revision, and of course I occasionally head down the wrong path, but I do this less frequently than before.

As I write this, I have 85,000 words of a Spellbound first draft and expect it to run ~140,000 words. The hardest part, actually, is the surprising amount of time a newbie author must devote to self promotion: online interviews, emails, blogs, Twitter, bookstore appearances. I'm told that declines as one gets further away from publication.

AMANDA: Are you worried about a sophomore slump?

BLAKE: When I was ending Spellwright, the fear of a sophomore slump was all I thought about. As a reader, I am most likely to stop following an author if the beginning of the second book is slow. I'm not sure why, but I think many other people do likewise. The beginning of a second book is a difficult point for a new novelist. You have your whole life to write your first novel; for your second, you have a year.

So, with the end of book one, I came up with a strategy: instead of ending it right after the climax, I extended the narration to cover the emotional repercussions that the wild events of the book would have on the protagonist. While doing this, I was able to position all the characters into the places I want them to start book two. Some have criticised the end for being drawn out by 10 pages or so. It hasn't yet been a major criticism, but it is a valid one. I deliberately chose to lengthen the ending so that I could start off book two with a bang.

It might be a little early to say - drafts change - but as of now, I'm really excited about how the strategy has worked out. Book two comes charging out of the gates and gains speed. It's a chance I'm taking: draw out the end of book one to help keep a reader hooked during the transition to book two.

AMANDA: Spellbound is the second book in the trilogy. Are you worried about 'middle book syndrome'?

BLAKE: No. The Spellwright trilogy uses much of classic fantasy; however, the employment of a single, continuous, ever-expanding narrative is not one. Spellbound takes place nearly a decade after the first book and concerns the pivotal political and military events that take place over the course of a few hectic days.

All the books in the series are epic fantasies. However, each book adopts a different main theme and employs elements of different plot structures. So, for example, Spellwright concentrates on a "coming of age" theme and employs murder mystery elements. Spellbound concentrates on a romantic theme and employs the plot elements of a political thriller. As of now (and could very well change in the writing of the book) Disjunction will examine the themes of rebellion and redemption and employ elements of a war narrative.

By keeping each book's time frame narrow, I ensure that each book tells a complete story that encapsulates the most important parts of the trilogy's story. More important, for each book, I can keep the speed of the story very high.

AMANDA: Your novels appear slim on the bookshelves in this day of the fantasy doorstop tome! Was this a conscious decision?

BLAKE: Very much so! Part of that is practical: medical school forces me to write fast and write short. Well, short for epic fantasy. When working on Spellwright, I spent a lot of time thinking about how mystery novels are plotted and paced. Epic fantasy likes to use the quest travelogue - usually as a party that splits up to show the reader an entire continent, or as a steadily growing party making a B-line for Ye Olde Centre of Nefarious Power. There's also, maybe, a number of authors who, disliking the quest motif, are writing excellent fantasies that wander around without a unified purpose. I think there's life yet in the contained classic quest stories, especially when we look for cross pollination with other genres.

AMANDA: You are getting quite the reputation as being one of the friendliest authors on the Interweb - are you seriously this nice in real life? Or is it all a front?

BLAKE: It's all a front. I never log onto the Interweb before my morning coffee. Beforehand, it's not too pretty.

AMANDA: How do you feel about the interaction between author and reader these days?

BLAKE: I think social media has created a wonderful environment for reader/author interaction. From an author's point of view, it provides invaluable feedback and a fair dose of inspiration - discovering so quickly and so directly that a work has an effect on a reader helps you keep your hands on the keyboard. It's also a lot of fun. The readers I've interacted with so far are all interesting and often very funny people.

But there's a fine art to being an author on the Internet. I certainly haven't mastered it yet. There are plenty of online pitfalls. A vicious critique can put you creatively out of commission. You can spend too much time blogging, tweeting, emailing, and so on and not enough time writing. But, over time, one can learn to aggregate and filter the information. I am worried by those readers who are not vocal on the Internet. I think one has to remember that there is an inherent sampling bias (to hit you with a medical research term) to internet reader/writer interaction. But, even so, I'm optimistic and having a lot of fun.

AMANDA: Sadly, we're almost at an end! But I'll just ask one more question: what do you do when not being a med student or writing? Or do they fill all the hours in the day?

BLAKE: With those two masters, there's not much time for anything else! Social life is kept to the minimum level that keeps me sane, no TV, no movies. The long hours of writing can get lonely, though I have been fortunate enough lately to make writing dates with the local, lovely and witty steampunk princess Gail Carriger. However, as lonely as writing is, medicine is intensely social - patients, peers, physicians, all in an emotionally charged atmosphere. The two of them make a good counterbalance.

AMANDA: Thank you so much for stopping by and asking our questions in such a thorough manner!

Blake Charlton's debut novel Spellwright is already released in the US, and is being released in the UK on 27th May 2010. You can learn more about the author at Blake Charlton's website and follow him on Twitter: @blakecharlton

1 comment:

  1. Excellent interview Amanda... you posed some fascinating questions.