Saturday, 26 April 2014

Author Interview: Brian Staveley

'The Emperor's Blades' - UK cover on the left, US cover on the right.

The Emperor's Blades has been one of the most highly anticipated d├ębuts of 2014. I first invited the author, Brian Staveley, to WWaS last year for a guest post, and you can expect another of these tomorrow, as well as a review in the coming days.
Between Brian's busy schedule of running trails, splitting wood, writing and editing, and baby-wrangling, I caught up with him recently to discuss the release of his first novel, playing April Fool's pranks on his editor, and what it feels like to be a published author.

Brian Staveley - Image copyright Laura Swoyer.

Hi Brian, welcome back to WWaS. For those readers who have yet to ‘meet you’, tell us a little about yourself.

I like hoppy beer, peaty scotch, and orange juice without pulp. I’m the worst dancer in my family – that includes the two-year-old – but out of the three of us I am hands-down the best sledder. My son’s not even close, and my wife doesn’t sled at all. I studied poetry for an impractically long time, both as an undergraduate and in grad school, arriving belatedly at the dismaying realization that no one pays anyone to write poetry. Fortunately, I had a lifetime packed with fantasy and science fiction novels, and after a little over a decade teaching high school English and history, I decided to try writing one of my own. The Emperor’s Blades is my first novel. 

So, how did you go from teaching to writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?

As I mentioned, for a long time I was fixated on the writing and translation poetry, but gradually my focus shifted. After more than a decade obsessing over tiny poetic details, testing cadence after cadence, banging my head against line breaks and medial caesurae, it was a great gust of fresh air when I turned my attention to the central concerns of speculative fiction: character, plot, and world-building.

Teaching made the writing possible. It paid the bills and provided me with vacations in which to put in unbroken weeks of work on the book. It didn’t hurt that I loved the job itself, the chance to work with curious young people and to study pretty much whatever material interested me.

You taught history, religion and philosophy for more than a decade – and in your debut novel ‘The Emperor’s Blades’ it’s easy to see how much of an impact this has had on your writing. Which of the subjects do you think has had the BIGGEST impact?

I taught a course in ancient world history, which was really a hysterical task, sort of like moving a whole beach with a pair of tweezers. The curriculum required us to cover everything that had happened in the world from the Neolithic to the 16th century. A person might take a decent stab at that task if she had twenty or thirty years; we had eight months.

The upside, of course, is that if you can’t do what’s required, you can do whatever the hell you want. At least, that’s how I looked at it. Every year we’d go in a different direction with the class, find a different lens through which to focus on world history, and every one of those lenses helped when it came to the writing of The Emperor’s Blades.

The world of the books is invented, of course, but even the most audacious fantasy author doesn’t invent things ex nilho. In my case, real-world history provided inspiration, context, and models for various political structures, characters, and events in the novel. Which isn’t to say there’s a one-to-one correspondence between the real world and my invented one. Annur isn’t Tang China or the Khmer Empire or Rome, but without real-world history, my own world would look like a cheap cardboard movie set. I really hope it doesn’t look like a cheap cardboard movie set.

Seeing we’ve mentioned it, tell us about ‘The Emperor’s Blades’ in 50 words or less – what’s your ‘elevator pitch’?

Three adult children of a murdered emperor – a monk, a politician, and an elite soldier – attempt to uncover the conspiracy behind their father’s death, all the while trying to stay alive.

How long did it take to plan and write the ‘Emperor’s Blades’? Do you have a writing routine?

Five months. Or five years. Depends on how you count.

I quit my teaching job and moved to Asia for a year in order to write the first draft. Laos and Cambodia are wonderful places to write: warm, inexpensive, rich in history and culture. Better yet, I didn’t know anyone over there, didn’t know the language, so there wasn’t much in the way of distraction. I’d write for the morning, get chased by stray dogs during my long afternoon run, write some more in the early evening, drink a beer, and go to sleep.

By the end of five or six months, I had a book. In fact, I had way too much book. That draft ran to about 300,000 words, which is awesome if your first name is George and your last name is Martin. Considerably less awesome if your first name is Brian and your last name is Staveley. Literary agents welcome 300,000 word manuscripts from unknown authors the way they might welcome boxes filled with used diapers. I went back to my teaching post and spent the next five years reworking the thing over the summers. And by reworking, I mean, “cutting mercilessly.”

Now that ‘The Emperor’s Blades’ has been released into the wild, are you happy with it? Anything you’d change?

Some readers I’ve chatted with want a larger role for Adare in the first book, and if I had it to do again, I’d shift some of her plot from book two into book one, giving her equal screen time with the brothers. Luckily, anyone jonesing for more Adare is going to be very happy with The Providence of Fire.

What was the hardest part of writing ‘The Emperor’s Blades’?

Writing the monks just about drove me crazy. The Shin train from a very early age to eliminate all emotion. It’s a nice goal for a group of monks, but absolute misery for a writer who relies on human emotion to drive a story forward. Luckily, none of the monks, even the most adept among them, has truly mastered this emotional emptiness. They have urges and angers, if deeply repressed, but the handling of those feelings is so, so dicey. Too much emotion, and they seem like shitty monks. Too little, and they lose all individuality and character.

The story follows three major PoV characters, all children of the Emperor. Kaden the monk, Valyn the Kettral soldier, and Adare the finance minister of the Annurian Empire. How did you come up with these vastly different characters? Are they based on anyone you know?

I wanted three characters with very different psychological profiles; at the most absurdly simple level, Kaden is calm, Valyn is tough, and Adare is smart. Of course, if you stop at the absurdly simple level you end up with a lousy book, and the characters twisted and resisted as I wrote them. As a result, Valyn has some moments of real weakness, Adare makes one very foolish decision, and Kaden loses his cool when it matters most. All three have grown well beyond the initial impulse that gave birth to them, accruing tics and foibles, secret wells of strength and conviction that I never anticipated. As I write my way into book three, I’m astounded at how far they’ve come (those who are still alive) from their younger selves in The Emperor’s Blades.

Of Kaden, Valyn and Adare, which do you most connect with?

Adare. While certain elements of Kaden’s and Valyn’s training are familiar to me, I’m not a military guy, and I’d never be able to hack it as a monk. Adare, on the other hand, does a lot of reading, her success or failure depends primarily on her ability to use her brain. I’m not saying I’d ever rise to the level of Minister of Finance, but if I ever tried out for the Kettral I’d be kicked off the Islands inside of a week.

I’m pretty sure that you’re not the son of an emperor (and if I’m wrong please forgive my transgressions oh’ your mightiest of mighties!), nor are you a monk, soldier, or minister. How did you go about researching the characters’ roles and ‘getting inside their heads’?

I rely on the holy trinity of the fantasy writer’s research: reading, chatting with real people, and making shit up. For example, I read quite a few books involving monks and monasteries, everything from The Rule of St. Benedict to Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West. A guy who lives down the street spent seven years in a Zen Buddhist monastery, and I enjoy picking his brain. And, of course, since I’m not writing about any denomination of real monks from our world, it’s possible, even necessary, to improvise, explore, and invent.

What would you like readers to take away from ‘the Emperor’s Blades’? Is there a moral to the story, any life changing lessons?

I'd be overjoyed in a reader had sweaty palms, stayed up too late reading, or cursed loudly at a character in the middle of a tense chapter. As for Morales and lessons... I've always been suspicious of literature that wants to teach me something.

What can we expect of the sequel?

The characters really hit the ground running, swords swinging, burning eyes blazing in The Providence of Fire. Training is definitely over.

We explore a lot more of the world – six or seven new locations, depending on how you count. There’s a lot more Adare – as you might infer from the cover, she’s really at the center of this second book. There’s also a new point of view character, someone you’ve already met in book one. And more Pyrre. I love Pyrre.

Recently, you posted that during the writing of book 3, you realised that you had to go back and change a large chunk of book 2. Does this happen a lot with your writing? Is it a straight forward beginning-to-end process, or do you go back and edit as you go?

You might be thinking of an April’s Fool’s prank I played on my editor. Book Two is about to go into copyedit, and I told him I needed to scrap 150,000 words of it. He was less than excited.

In all honesty, though, writing the third book is terrifying. I’m firmly convinced that the key to a good ending lies in the handling of the story’s beginning, and now that the beginning is set in stone (limestone tablet version now available from Amazon), I get nervous. I have the end sketched out, of course, but I’m horrified that I’ll realize, on Book Three, Chapter Thirty-Six, that I should have set up some detail in Book Two, Chapter Eight. Of course, there’s nothing to be done about it, but that doesn’t stop the fretting.

Do you read other books in your own genre? Who is your favourite author?

Ursula Le Guin is just staggeringly good. I almost always have one of her novels going, alongside whatever else I’m reading.

You have your own blog, on which you post thought-provoking articles around writing, fantasy in particular. Do you have any pearls of wisdom (particularly from your philosophy background) that you’d like to share with would-be writers?

I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a would-be writer. There are people who are writing and people who are not.

'The Emperor's Blades' is published by Tor, and is available from all major bookstores and Amazon.
You can find out more about Brian on his blog


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