Epic Fantasy Interview Swap – Gail Z. Martin interviews John R. Fultz
2013 is off to a great start, and if you’re a fantasy reader there are a ton of great books to choose from. With the releases of A MEMORY OF LIGHT (UK | AUS), ICE FORGED (US | UK | AUS), and now SEVEN KINGS (UK |US | ANZ), you have a lot of reading to do.
Today let’s talk epic fantasy with authors Gail Z. Martin and John R. Fultz. Below is the first of a two part interview about writing in the genre and the most recent projects of these two authors. Come back tomorrow for the second half.
Gail Z. Martin: SEVEN KINGS is your second novel, and you’ve said that you think it is even better than your debut work. What did you learn writing your first book, and how did that affect your new book?
John R. Fultz: What a great question… I think that writing SEVEN PRINCES was very freeing for me because at the time I wrote it I had no guidelines, no publisher, no deadlines, no expectations except those I built myself. I remember telling a friend: “I’m going to write this story and let it be as long as it wants to be, and take as long as it needs to take.” After years of writing short stories it was time to make the transition to novelist, and all the advice I’d been given said “First, you must write the novel—everything else will follow.” So I took a “damn the torpedoes” approach and wrote the novel that I most wanted to write, with all the elements that had fascinated and attracted me to epic fantasy for decades. I came up with some fascinating characters, dropped them into an interesting setting, and basically let them run. It was very cathartic, and I finished the novel in far less time than I thought I would—I had built up some serious momentum. I usually write novels over the summer when I’m not teaching, and I’ve written three more “summer novels” since then. Of course the “idea work” begins months earlier, but summer is my official “writing season,” when I go nocturnal and spend as much time as I want in front of the keyboard. With SEVEN PRINCES I also had some great advice from a local writing group to help me get the early chapters just right.
With SEVEN KINGS, things had changed. New challenges presented themselves, and my priorities were quite different. I had already established a great cast of characters that I loved writing about, as well as the world they inhabited and most of the major conflicts that drove the narrative. The rules of sorcery were there (if not fully revealed yet), as well as the threads of many plotlines that would carry throughout all three books. So my job with Book II: SEVEN KINGS was to “deepen” the pot. I wanted to introduce some new characters, and to reveal more of the mystery that is Iardu the Shaper, including his role in the history of the world. I had always planned to explore the dichotomy of Lyrilan and Tyro as the Twin Kings, two very different brothers attempting to rule the same kingdom. And I knew I would stay with Vireon and Sharadza, the Children of Vod. My Book I antagonists had been defeated but not completely vanquished in the first book, so I needed to take them to a new level. Finally, I wanted to explore more of the deep history of the Shaper’s world, and reveal some heretofore obscure regions of it. This is why I decided to begin SEVEN KINGS deep in the jungles of Khyrei, a nation ruled by wicked powers that the rest of the world hates and fears.
There were also some “happy endings” in SEVEN PRINCES that I always intended to reveal were far from “happily ever after.” For example, Sharadza’s marriage to D’zan seems like a fairytale ending in the first book, but in the second book you find out the marriage is a failure—and for a reason that Sharadza refuses to reveal. Likewise with Vireon and Alua’s seemingly “perfect” family…there is more going on here than either of them suspects and it takes seven years to manifest. Life rarely serves up genuine happy endings, and I wanted to reflect that in this series by going back and showing the consequences of the new situations established at the end of the first book.
I guess you could say my goal with SEVEN KINGS was to raise the bar on the conflict, the characters, the threat, and above all the sorcery. Someone told me that SEVEN PRINCES was really all about sorcery, and I agreed. If that’s true then it also applies to the entire series. In some ways I wanted to subvert all the victories of the first book and show that the real story is far more vast and complex, like magic itself. Hopefully this mirrors how difficult it is to be a King, as opposed to a Prince. A King actually has to rule the kingdom, fight the wars, confront the overwhelming threats, and live with the terrible choices he makes. Kings rarely get second chances.
In many ways SEVEN KINGS is the “Act Two” of the trilogy, and traditionally the second act of any drama expands and complicates the elements of the first act. This is also why the second part of any trilogy is often considered “darker,” and I expect that to be said of SEVEN KINGS as well. It is decidedly darker: The worst is yet to come for these characters and the world they have built. Also, Book II: SEVEN KINGS takes place seven years after Book I, but Book III will take place only seven DAYS after Book II. So there is a much more immediate connection between Books II and III than between I and II.
Gail Z. Martin: You’ve got the Book of the Shaper series going—what inspired you to take on a series, and what do you like about series?
John R. Fultz: When I wrote SEVEN PRINCES I didn’t actually know if there would be a second or third book. I wanted a book that could stand alone if it had to. Yet as with all epic stories, there was plenty more left to explore. In today’s market fantasy writers are usually expected to write in series format. I might have done something completely different for my second novel, but it only makes sense to pitch fantasy books as series these days, so we pitched it to Orbit as the first of three books (with outlines for Books II and III). This works for many reasons: Fans love to revisit the fantasy worlds they love; having three books gives the reading public three chances to engage with your work; and doing three books lets you be far more “epic” than any single book.
As a reader I also love going back into my favorite fantasy worlds with the next book in a series. As a writer I enjoy series from a different perspective: Multiple volumes lets me go “deeper” into the world, explore the characters in greater detail, and really flesh out the fantasy environment. Doing a series is a long-term relationship with your imagination, and finishing the third book of a trilogy really gives you a sense of accomplishment. However, the irony is that I ALWAYS find some other thread, character, or lingering theme that I could explore in further volumes. I think that’s the nature of the writer—we’re always thinking about what could be, what might happen, or What Is and What Should Never Be (props to Led Zeppelin).
Gail Z. Martin: Sticking with the series topic, what do you think are the common missteps authors make with series?
John R. Fultz: I can only answer this from the point-of-view of my own personal tastes. Sometimes series simply move too slowly for me. Every fantasy fan has read a Book I where nothing really happens—it’s all just set-up for Book II. I wanted The Books of the Shaper to avoid this problem—Book I takes readers on an epic journey but it also prepares them for an even bigger ride in Book II. Likewise, sometimes books in the middle of a series can be drawn out and meandering. Personally, when I read a book I want a beginning, middle, and end—even if that book is part of an ongoing series. I really am not a fan of splitting a story in half, or into thirds. If you are writing in serial format, you’re better off playing to the strengths of that format. The best television shows of our time illustrate perfectly how to do this, and you can see it in many ongoing comic book series as well.
In short, every “installment” (book, episode, or issue) should offer a complete story. Surely there will be themes and events that are left untold, but there has to be some sense of fulfillment when you reach the end of any particular book. That sense of completion, to me, is just as important as the “hook” that keeps you wanting to read the next book. So I made sure that each Book of the Shaper has its own ending as well as something to draw the reader back for more.
Gail Z. Martin: Your series is not just a set of adventures by the same characters—you’re writing a multigenerational series. What are the challenges particular to tackling a story that spans generations, and what are the benefits?
John R. Fultz: Well, the Books of the Shaper isn’t quite as multigenerational as some stories, yet the concept of Family underlies the entire saga. The story deals mainly with the Children of Vod and a few other characters who are of the same generation, yet this scope expands far wider by the third book. Of course, some of my characters are long-lived immortals, and others have been born and re-born throughout history. One of the things that attracts me to the multigenerational approach is that it mirrors the real world—as human beings we are all part of a multigenerational story. Family is the one common element that all of us can relate to regardless of language, culture, religion, or any other differences. There is a strong undercurrent of Father/Son relationships that shows up again and again in this series. However, there are many other types of familial relationships that are explored as well.
High Fantasy/Epic Fantasy by its very nature engenders stories of more than one generation. Also, when you’re dealing with Kings, Queens, Princes, and Princesses, the idea of lineage, heritage, and bloodlines becomes even more crucial to the story. I’ve always been emotionally connected to stories about fathers and sons, so that probably comes from a subconscious fascination. And I think half (or more) of what all writers do comes from the subconscious—the fertile dreamland of imagination that we constantly mine for ideas—the boundless source of all storytelling.
Gail Z. Martin: Several authors, including Kevin J. Anderson and Catherine Asaro, have created musical playlists to accompany their books. You’ve posted “Seven Songs for SEVEN PRINCES” on your blog—is there a playlist you’d suggest for readers to deepen the experience of reading your work?
John R. Fultz: Actually that playlist (Seven Songs for SEVEN PRINCES) could work for the entire series, with some modifications for each book. I will probably post a “Seven Songs for SEVEN KINGS” playlist at some point after the book comes out.
Gail Z. Martin: World-building is always a core element of writing fantasy. Creating a believable world is challenging for any book, more so for a series even when that series plays out over the course of a single lifetime. What world-building challenges did you face as you spin your stories out over multiple generations?
John R. Fultz: World-building is part of the fun when you’re writing fantasy. However, it does carry its own unique challenges. One of the biggest for me was keeping track of the gritty details from book to book. Things like the official colors of various kingdoms, and their royal banners, as well as the layouts, flavor, and building materials of the great cities. Also the types of armor worn in each area, and the specific types of weaponry—these can add so much color but can be a real challenge to keep consistent. For example, some regions of the Shaper’s world use curved swords while others use straight-edged blades. One thing that I decided early on was that humans had mastered the crafting of bronze but not steel. However, the northern Giants mastered the making of steel a long time ago, so when you have steel weapons they were forged by Giants. As the cultures of Giants and Men came closer together (thanks to Vod’s city New Udurum), steel became more available throughout the kingdoms of man, thanks to widespread trade and spread of metallurgic knowledge.
As I’m sure you’re aware (having done five related novels), the deeper you go into a series the more important it is to keep excellent notes on everything. I’m always amazed at how George R. R. Martin keeps all the heraldry and history intact between all the Houses of Westeros in his SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books. He seems to revel in the complicated nature of these details, and he is a master of doing so. However, I was amused to hear him talk about how hard it is to keep each characters’ eye color straight—something I’ve also had to struggle with at times. Hair color and other minute details can also be quite maddening—there is no substitute for well-organized notes. My rule is “never delete anything.” And while I’m writing a novel I’m constantly going through my notes organizing, detailing, honing, and modifying the essential information. Sometimes you feel like more of a record-keeper than a writer, but it all pays off when you deliver a deeply realized and diverse fantasy world that feels real to the reader.
Gail Z. Martin: One of the lovely things about epic fantasy is that it can go macro or micro and still be epic. (For example, you could write an epic story about an entire war, or a single, decisive battle.) Of necessity, your multigenerational series must leave out interesting people and events over its large timeline. Any plans to revisit those untold stories in future books, novellas or short fiction?
John R. Fultz: I do know Vod the Giant-King’s entire story (although his adventures are long done when SEVEN PRINCES opens). I’d like to release Vod’s Tale as an original graphic novel someday. I will also probably have a few short stories to tell after the series ends, checking back in with a few of the favorite characters. I may return to this universe in the future, but if I do it will be in an entirely new way. I want to do some other things first, flex some different writing muscles, and explore some new territory. Create some new legends and discovers some whole new worlds. But the World of the Shaper is definitely something that could spawn many future stories.
Gail Z. Martin: How has your life changed with the publication of your first book? Has it changed the way you see yourself?
John R. Fultz: The biggest change is probably the comfort of a tangible reason to keep on writing. (Not that I would ever stop!) Knowing that if I write a book there is a publisher and a market for it. Before you get that, you write everything as a blind leap of faith: “I will find a publisher for this. I will get it out there. Somehow…” Once you’ve found a publisher that appreciates your work and wants to release it, all that blind faith seems to have been worth it. However, I would still be writing if I had no publisher—I’d simply still be looking for one. Writers write because we have to, not because we want to. What Orbit Books has given me is the splendid gift of an AUDIENCE. It’s so nice to write for an audience, especially one that spans the globe and has practically unlimited potential for growth. I don’t believe in writers who write only for themselves; ultimately what we do is a form of communication, which requires that our work be read by others.
I don’t know if being a published novelist has changed the way I see myself, but it seems to have changed the way some others see me. Except for those who know me the best—it hasn’t changed much with them at all. To my oldest friends and relatives I’m still the same old Fultz I’ve ever been (for better or worse). As for everyone else, they are either impressed because they like reading books, or they could care less because they don’t read at all.
One benefit I have enjoyed is how being a “real writer” has given me more street cred with my students. When I talk to them about their writing skills, a lot of them listen more closely because they know I’m not “just a teacher”—they see that I know how to write professionally. It often helps to inspire them. Some of them even get really excited and seek out my books.
Most of all, being a novelist represents many years of hard work and sacrifice. It is both a tremendous privilege and a towering responsibility. I absolutely love it.
Gail Z. Martin: What’s the best advice anyone gave you as an aspiring author? What advice would you give aspiring authors?
John R. Fultz: The best advice I ever got would probably be to “Get comfortable with rejection.” For every piece that gets published there might be a hundred that will never see the light of day. A writer has to build a suit of armor from his/her rejection slips (metaphorically), and he has to learn how to NOT take it personally when he gets rejected. It’s easier said than done, but it takes fortitude.
When it comes to craft, the best advice I ever got was to simplify my language. I still struggle with this at times: If you don’t need an adjective, kill it. Adverbs are not your friends. Multiple adjectives for the same noun is overkill. Show don’t tell. A clever metaphor built with simple language is far more effective than a rambling description full of colorful words. LESS is MORE. This truism applies in prose as it applies in music. Yet it’s not an easy lesson to learn. Some writers are naturally going to be leaner in style, while others are going to be more verbose and lyrical, but you have to find what works for you and makes your prose readable. It’s a lifelong journey, and you never stop learning or trying to get better.
Another piece of advice that I live by comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said: “Character is plot, plot is character.” Whenever I’m struggling or lost in a story, I renew my focus on the character in question, and I find the answer there. As the old saying goes, Character Is King.
Gail Z. Martin: What’s your muse? Is there a person, pet, location or piece of music that is your go-to refuge to recharge your creative batteries and find inspiration?
John R. Fultz: Well, you might say that the great state of California is my muse. I’ve lived here for 14 years, and I find it immensely inspiring and stunningly beautiful. Taking a broader view, what inspires me is every great book I read, every great movie I see, and every great song I hear. I take inspiration from the inspired works of others. One of the great things about great art is that it begets other great art. I also find nature very inspiring: the ocean, the deep woods, mountains and rolling green hills, even the timeless desert. There are many authors whose work never fails to greatly inspire me: Tanith Lee, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and Shakespeare—to name only a few. Travel can also be an inspiration, although I don’t do as much of that as I’d like. Just give me a great book and some time to read it, and I’m bound to be inspired.