Stephen Deas, the author of the Memory of Flames fantasy series, has a flare for grim, dark and gripping fantasy. And luckily, after putting the final touches to his latest novel, he was able to take some time to answer a few questions about writing, fantasy, what he’s looking forward to in 2011, and of course, dragons…
How would you describe your Memory of Flames series (The Adamantine Palace, The King of the Crags and The Order of the Scales) to someone who knew nothing about it?
Imagine you’re a dragon. Monstrous, tireless, ageless. You have seen the world broken into pieces and assembled back together again. You have travelled the lands of the living and the dead. You know what lurks in both and you have no fear of anything that you have seen, because you are a dragon and nothing is your equal.
Imagine there are men. Little scurrying things that run on two legs instead of four. They are unremarkable prey – small and slow – save for one thing. They think. They understand what you are when you come for them. They feel fear, hope, dread, despair and you have come to savour the taste of those things. They are delicious little treats, rewarding, even if they are hard to winkle out of their holes.
Now imagine that something has changed. Imagine the men have learned a trick. Imagine they have found a way to make you stupid. They no long scurry and hide and fear you, no – now you are their pet. They feed you and nurse you and ride you. They wear your skin for their armour and make bows from your bones. They make you dull, like a dog, with their alchemy. They strip you of your power and your glory and your rage. For hundreds of years, they grow rich and fat on the back of you. They make you forget what you are and then they forget themselves, and the fear and the dread are all gone and everything is made drab and meaningless.
Imagine you wake up. Imagine you remember. All of it. Imagine the fury.
Now imagine there are thousands of you.
You released your first YA fantasy, The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice, last year. How would you describe this series for new reader, how do you see this series developing, and how do you find writing for a younger audience?
Your name is Berren. You’re an orphan, one of Khrozus’ boys, a by-blow of a city siege a dozen-ish years ago. At the age of six, you were bought by Master Hatchet and set to work as a street-cleaner, pushing a cart around the city of Deephaven and shovelling animal dung off the street. As you grew up, you learned to pick pockets, to cut purses, just like the boys around you. You learned to give your master what you stole and hide very well what you kept for yourself.
One day you go to work the crowd at a public execution. You’ve never seen a man have his head chopped off before, so you stay to watch, and you see a thief-taker, handed a purse filled with gold, more treasure than you could possibly imagine. Enough to change your life. So you try to steal it, but only the foolish or the desperate try to cut a thief-taker’s purse. Instead of handing you over to the city militias for a ritual beating and branding, though, this thief-taker sees something in you, almost as though he sees someone else. He makes you an offer: work off your debt to him, and if you work well and you work hard, he’ll keep you as his apprentice. And so you do.
It’s not all roses: What you want to learn about is sword-play, and what he wants you to learn about is letters and manners and boring stuff like that. And yes there’s that irritating girl who thinks she’s better than you and the small matter of the old gang you used to run with who aren’t taking at all kindly to your new status, not to mention the thief-taker himself, who makes his living hunting dangerous men who often want to kill him – but you’d expect that sort of thing.
But your new master has a darker side too. Beneath the stern father-like façade of the thief-taker lies a simmering anger, a past that refuses to go away, and friends and accomplices far darker than mere thieves and smugglers. Sooner or later, you will have a choice: Serve the master who raised you out of the gutter, save yourself from his growing madness, or try to do both.
Which answers the first two questions, although I’ll add that I see the series tying in to the Memory of Flames at some point in the foreseeable future. As for writing for a younger audience... I don’t particularly feel that I am. I try to keep the story focussed on Berren and yes, he’s a teenager, but otherwise, I don’t try to write down to my readers at all. I’d say, on the whole, the hardest part is keep the story tightly focussed and not allowing any other points of view and yet showing that there is a bigger world, a bigger picture and a bigger story than the one that Berren sees (in fact, I fail in this briefly in The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice, where there is one scene from another point of view. In hindsight, I wish I’d found another way to do that, but that’s not going to stop me from doing it again in the third book, because there is a bigger story here). Editor permitting, I’d like to set more stories in the same world and widen it, but as for the thief-taker and his apprentice themselves... I have definite plans for both of them.
What drew you to the fantasy genre, and who and what would you say are the biggest influences on your work?
I can’t remember exactly how I became interested in fantasy. We always had a lot of science fiction in the house when I was growing up, but fantasy is a strange thing. I remember reading The Hobbit and that making quite an impression, but I think it goes back further. Books for children naturally veer towards the fantastic, I think, so maybe the question is – why do so many readers move away from fantasy as they grow older? I think part of the answer is simply that I never quite grew up. Fantasy stories allow for a simple morality and a setting that fires the imagination. Heroes can be heroes and villains can be villains and neither have to be particularly complicated (they can be and often are, but I’m talking more about stories for younger readers here). I remember reading books like Watership Down and Swallows and Amazons and both of those influencing the way I saw the world (I took up sailing for a start). Later I found fantasy stories gave me more of that sense of adventure I’d found in books as a child and they still do. Fantasy has moved on a lot since the days of Conan and the likes of David Gemmell, but I still look at those stories as forming my own love of the genre, along with The Lord of the Rings and the likes of The Belgariad. If you want a couple of authors whose stories I still wish I’d written even now, then it’s Robert E Howard and Tolkien. And I realise that’s a bit of a cliché, but they’re the genre names they are for a reason!
Where did your interest in dragons come from? Who else do you think writes dragons well?
When I started writing books (and they were pretty bad books back then), I had it in my head that almost every fantasy book had a dragon in it. I actively avoided them for years, trying not to follow the same old clichés. I never liked dragons as pets/partners in the way they appear in the Pern books and later Temeraire, and that seemed to be the way dragons had gone, so I avoided them. I only came back to them when my editor asked if I’d be interested in writing a fantasy series with dragons for Gollancz; fortunately we saw eye to eye on roughly what dragons should be and so they – and what they were – became the cornerstone of the whole series.
I don’t know who else writes dragons well. Cressida Cowell. Thing is, I tend to avoid dragon fantasy like the plague now, because either the dragons will be a disappointment or else I’ll like them better than mine, and in either case, I really don’t want to know.
What’s your opinion of the genre as a whole today?
I think we live in interesting times. There’s a changing of the guard underway, and the new fantasy is gritty and grim and unforgiving and steering away from single heroic lead characters to multiple point-of-view stories where any act of heroism is more accidental than intended. I have to wonder how much of that is down to the emergence of role-playing games and a lot of us fantasy authors getting used to the idea of adventuring parties of 4-6 players instead of the lone hero – although having said that, Lord of the Rings is a story about a group of characters too. But I’m not the person to ask – I probably don’t read nearly as much as you do. I wonder sometimes if there’s going to be a reaction against the ‘new gritty’, if I can call it that, where we see a resurgence of the honourable hero or at least the lone-wolf anti-hero.
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Do you have any specific writing habits and rituals/processes, and how do you find being a writer and the whole publishing process?
I’ve written most of my books with a day-job and two young boys, so I’ve learned to sit down and write whenever the opportunity comes. For some reason, having no time at all and being really good at taking the odd twenty minutes here and there and just picking up from where I left off now means that when I have four solid hours of writing time, I end up wasting three of them and only setting to work when I’m almost out of time. Typical, eh? But no, no ritual – I take my laptop and I write on the train, on the subway, I write in my lunch-breaks at the day-job, while the kids are watching TV, in coffee-shops. I find writing at home to be the hardest, in a way. Too many distractions. Or maybe I should say too many opportunities for distraction. On the whole, my problems have become my own – I just need to manage my time better and convince myself that it’s either noodling on the internet or playing X-box, not both of those and then not having any time left to write. I’ll say one thing, though – I never realised how much extra work it was to write a published book than to just write one for the fun of it. Where I used to do one or two rewrites, now I do three and then two more and then proof-reading, and that’s a lot of extra hours!
What do you do to unwind, when you need a break from work?
Writing used to be my break from work, back when “work” was something else. Until very recently, all my time was taken up by having a day-job, having a family and writing books, and the one and only escape I allowed myself was a weekly D&D session. I haven’t really figured out the answer to that question yet, but given the chance, if the time finally frees up to do something, I’d probably go for long walks in the countryside, play lots of stuff like Far Cry and go back to assorted martial arts classes. As it is, well, even writing this...
... is done in snatched sentences...
Just as well that writing doesn’t feel like work most of the time. When it does – well, I try to have multiple projects on the go, so if one doesn’t suit my mood, I can just go to another for a bit.
I’ve just finished the proof-reading for Order of the Scales, the last of the three Memory of Flames books. I have four more books on the way set in the aftermath. The first, The Black Mausoleum, is set entirely in the dragon realms and follows an alchemist’s quest for the mythical Black Mausoleum, supposed burial place of the half-god who first tamed the dragons. The three that follow are another trilogy, this time set largely in the Taiytakei lands. A few characters will return from the Memory of Flames, and there will be at least one character you’ll recognise from The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice. On top of that, there are two more Thief-Taker books and a novella to come (the novella will be a free download when it’s ready). On top of that, there’s another project that I’m looking at with my editor for 2013, but I can’t talk about that for now except to say it’s more fantasy.
Plans? For the time being, I write whatever people will pay me to write. I have very rough outlines for a couple of alternate history steampunk stories, something Minoan, an entirely different YA fantasy story, a couple of things that defy classification, a non-genre thriller and a Science Fiction TV series based on a cross between Babylon Five and The X-Files. If anyone wants some, please talk to my agent.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
Right now I’m reading The Toymaker and Ten Books that Changed the World. The last thing I read was Flowers for Algernon, because I was made to at gunpoint (and yes, it’s thought-provoking and moving, so I suppose I don’t mind). Next was about to be a fight to the death between MD Lachlan’s Fenrir and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear, but actually I think Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper might have snuck in under the wire at the last possible second.
What are you looking forward to in 2011? (Books, movies, TV, anything.)
More True Blood, more Lie to Me, more Dexter, not having a 9-5 day-job any more, being master of my own destiny, Fenrir, the next Scott Lynch (fingers crossed), Crysis 2, Lego Star Wars 3, the next Assassin’s Creed and a three-foot-long Toblerone.
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Thanks very much to Stephen for taking the time to answer these questions! If you haven’t checked out any of his novels yet (shame on you!), The Adamantine Palace and The King of the Crags are both available in paperback in the UK, and The Order of the Scales will be published in hardback in May 2011. If you’d like to find out more about Stephen and his novels, head on over to his website.