Last year, there was a lot of chatter on the interwebs about new fantasy author Blake Charlton, and the interesting magic system he had created for his new fantasy series. I was lucky enough to get hold of an early copy of Spellwright, which I very much enjoyed. Spellbound, the sequel, is published this year, so I thought it would be a great time to see if Mr Charlton was available for interview. Luckily, he was, and below are his enthusiastic responses to a few questions I posed to him.
To a new reader I’d say that Spellbound is a neo-classical fantasy, the second in a series, that takes place in a world where the written word can be made physically real. Center-stage is Francesca DeVega, a young healer in the city of Avel who composes magical sentences that close wounds and disspell curses. Francesca is living the hectic but ordinary life of a physician in a bustling city when suddenly her world is turned upside down. A dead patient comes back to life. She’s hunted by a creature that can destroy a mind’s ability to perceive language. She’s forced to throw her lot in with a renegade wizard named Nicodemus Weal and a man she hoped never to see again. All the while, demons and demigods are tearing through the city in a deadly game of intrigue.
Francesca is incredibly enjoyable to write; she’s very earnest about her profession but also fairly cynical about human nature. She’s witty and shoots her mouth off; it gets her into trouble, but she’s so good at getting out of trouble, she doesn’t mind that so much. A beta reader of mine called her “the love child of Locke Lamora and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” which hit every geeky button I have.
And how would you describe Spellbound to a returning reader? How does the book lead on from Spellwright?
*Mild spoiler alert for those who haven’t read Spellwright*
Spellbound takes place ten years after the conclusion of Spellwright. Nicodemus Weal, the protagonist of the first book, plays a central role in the story. He’s changed quite a lot but in a way that should be intuitively understandable. Compared to Francesca, Nico has a much firmer grip on the intrigue that breaks out in Avel. However, Nico is now facing greater troubles than he ever has before. In addition to struggling against the demon Typhon, Nico must avoid the assassins his half-sister has sent after him, all the while trying to keep his mentor from dying of an incurable curse.
Previously you called Spellbound a “neo-classical” fantasy? What do you mean by that?
That’s a good question… given that I just made the term up on the spot. What I mean is that Spellbound has clearly defined protagonists, who are flawed but (I hope) very likable. There’s a central mystery that drives the story forward at high speed into romance and a satisfying conclusion. The book (and the series) takes its inspiration from the classic fantasies of the 80s and 90s: Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan, and Ursula LeGuin. That said, I hope there’s enough innovation with the themes of disability, language, and biology that make it a development from (rather than an imitation of) the classic fantasies. I hope people will say of it that there’s a healthy slug of “Young Adult” in the spirit of the book that makes it a refreshing contrast to the presently reigning gritty school of epic fantasy.
The setting for Spellwright seemed to draw heavily upon the institution of the European university. Is Spellbound going to take place in a similar setting?
Spellwright is very much in the “magical academy” subgenre; hopefully the theme of “disability in magic” helped make it fresh. One critic called it “Harry Potter and the Special Ed Classroom.” I think he was trying to be snarky, but I was flattered by the comparison.
Spellbound takes the action of the trilogy out of the academy and into the city of Avel. I’m very excited to show off this particular setting. Avel is a bustling city in the deep savannah of the kingdom of Spires. Its structure and culture was inspired by the medieval cities of Morocco. When I was a teenager, I did a student travel program and I ended up spending a summer in the beautiful city of Meknes. Later when I travelled in Spain, I saw a lot of similar architectural and cultural elements. In particular, a similar use of cumin in both Moroccan and Spanish cooking struck me. Even the languages have many commonalities: for example, the Spanish word for rice “arroz” comes from the Andalusian Arabic word “aruzz.” Even more intriguing to me was remembering that I had encountered many of these cultural and linguistic elements in the Americas. Mexican cuisine also incorporates cumin, and many of the grandest structures built by Spanish settlers have Moorish (i.e. Moroccan) elements. For example, last year I was lucky enough to travel to Peru. In Lima, I visited El Covento de San Francisco and was delighted at one point to find myself standing under an ornate and beautiful ceiling decorated with a “Moorish Star” pattern: the ceiling was almost an exact replica I had seen as a teenager in a very distant North African city.
Anyway, my epic fantasy writer imagination had found a source of inspiration. I read up on Al Andalusia, the many different Catholic kingdoms of medieval Spain, the Ottoman Empire in Northern Africa. All of them got mashed up with a dash of pure fabrication to produce the architecture, politics, and culture of Spires. I had a lot of fun dreaming the place up, and I very much hope that readers have fun exploring Avel and the surrounding cities on an adventure.
Who did you grow up reading, and what first drew you to speculative fiction?
As you might know, severe dyslexia kept me from reading until I was thirteen years old. At that point I discovered the classic epic fantasies I mentioned above: Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Robin Hobb, Ursula LeGuin, Raymond Feist. I would sneak paperbacks into special ed study hall and, when I was supposed to completing spelling drills, I surreptitiously read them under my desk. Much of my quest to publish epic fantasy has been a desire to give back to the literary tradition that gave me so much.
What’s your opinion about the fantasy genre and community today? In particular, how do you see the rise in internet media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.) helping authors, new and established?
As far as I can tell, fantasy is alive and well! There are a lot of wonderful authors producing amazing work. Audiences are growing. The “mainstream” is paying more attention to the genre (witness HBO’s Game of Thrones.) However, in many ways, I don’t think this “state of the genre” is dramatically different from how it has been in the past. What I do think is new, as you mention, is the way in which literature is being distributed and how authors relate to readers. Certainly no one can predict what ebooks and piracy will do to publishing as a profession, but so far I haven’t exactly seen the sky falling. I’m keeping all my fingers crossed and knocking on everything wooden that the publishing industry undergoes the sea change to digital distribution without being diminished. Social media, on the other hand, has already had a clear effect on the genre. To my mind, social media represents both a wonderful opportunity and a great risk. Connection with one’s readers is a precious thing. To be able to chat with them, find out what they’re thinking, what they liked or didn’t like about your last book—these are really wonderful things. However, at the end of the day, a writer’s task is to produce more fiction, not make more online friends. I think readers intuitively know this and are completely willing to give authors a bit of grace when the authors need to step away from social media. The danger, at least for me, comes from the reverse situation. Readers are fascinating people. It’s very easy to start up a few conversations and then suddenly realize that one’s morning, or perhaps entire allotted writing time, has been absorbed by these conversations. Before it’s an art or a business, writing is a discipline and—to my mind—finding the discipline to ration social media is a vital skill today’s authors have to master.
Spellwright Paperback Editions (UK/US)
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
As you might guess, I came late to writing. I just couldn’t do it until I was about fourteen. So as a result, I had no childhood dreams of becoming an author. Sitting in a special ed classroom, I had an easier time imagining growing up to become an astronaut who flew to Mars (in fact, I often imagined that). However, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy listening to stories: thanks to my parents reading aloud and to the productions of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. I always enjoyed making up stories; I would tell them to friends or sometimes dictate them to my sister. Later, when I was in college and a professor encouraged me to take time off from the pre-med tract to finish the novel I had started, the idea seemed completely bizarre to me. But being in my early twenties, and feeling like I had all the time in the world, I ran after the dream. It was a very odd experience to write all day without knowing if I would ever be published. Very isolating. Then there came the issue of money; I was always running out of it. All the rejections didn’t help either. However, I started teaching then and discovered I loved education. That gave me more material to write about and made me feel more connected to the world. I discovered that I really need that feeling of connection, which is now supplied (and how!) by medical school. Not to get too Zen on you, but I think that discovering who one is as a writer is really a form of discovering who one is as a person.
How do you juggle your medical career, studies and writing?
Ever see Shakespeare in Love? Just when everything seems like it’s going to go to hell in a handbasket and the play will be ruined, characters turn to the owner of the theater, Philip Henslowe, and say something equivalent to “OMGWTF are we gonna do?” and he replies, “Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.” When they demand to know how, he only shrugs and says, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
That’s about what it’s like to be a novelist and a med student. Disaster is pretty much always looming (manuscript deadlines, standardized tests, looooong work days), but somehow things get done. I just hope and pray it continues that way. Of course, I must admit that I’m not as fast as my contemporaries. Spellbound will be published about a year and a half after Spellwright. And because of the added demands of my clinical schedule, it’s looking like the final book in the series will take longer. I can’t say more than that. However, my readers are wonderful people, and they have been very forgiving regarding my two careers, for which I am very, very grateful.
Do you have any specific authorial habits or rituals?
Not many at all. When there is time to write, I sit down and put my hands on the keyboard. There is so precious little time to write these days that simply feeling that I have an hour or so free is impetus enough to keep going. That said, I do have some funny “tricks” I can pull on myself to get myself or keep myself writing. For example, if I’m really stuck on a chapter I’ve discovered that brushing my teeth can sometimes get the gears turning. I have no effin’ idea why this should be so. The brain is the strangest thing in the galaxy. But, hey, if it works (and improves my dental hygiene) why not? Another trick/quirk, I use is the “media switch.” If I’m not producing fluently after 20 minutes, I switch the media. So, for example, if I’m sitting at my computer and the words are just not coming out, I go to the kitchen table and write with pen and paper. Sometimes that will do the trick. Other times, I have to put the pen down and start dictating into my iPhone.
What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
The third and final book in the Spellwright Trilogy! Presently that book is titled Disspell, but that’s changed in the past and might change again. I’ve got a bunch of academic medical articles coming out, for those medically minded. Looking forward to book four…well...that’s hard. I have a whole lot of ideas that I want to pursue: A historical fantasy about Stuart London, another about Gold Rush San Francisco; a new weird-ish book about kids in special ed…I can get a little ahead of myself with big flashy new ideas, especially when there’s all that “finish medical school and start residency” stuff to think about. So, I try to focus more on the The Next Book.
How do you keep busy when not writing?
Blake at his Day Job
What are you reading at the moment (fiction/non-fiction)?
Fiction wise, I’m about halfway into The Windup Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Super weird. Magical. Strangely metaphorical. Great stuff.
Regarding non-fiction, I’m doing research for the final book in the series. Here’s what’s sitting on the coffee table at the moment: Angkor and the Khmer Civilization by Michael Coe; Ancient Hawai’i by Herb Kawainui Kane; A Pocket Guide to the Hawaiian Language by Albert Schutz; and High-Yield Neuroanatomy by James Fix. Wondering how I’m going to tie all those together into an epic fantasy? Well… I’m kinda wondering that too. I’ll let you know as soon as I finish book three. Actually, well, no, I won’t; I’ll try to make you buy book three so you can find out.
Any final comments or advice for aspiring writers?
I’m of the school of thought that writing springs from one’s connection to the world. When I was younger, I thought that what I needed to write was more time—time to write, time away from work or family, time to think. As I alluded to above, I later discovered that I was almost exactly wrong. My greatest successes (such as they are) in writing have come directly from my experiences as a teacher, brother, son, friend, medical student etc. To anyone who’s serious about writing for a very long time, I would advise them to look to their non-writing life: day job, family, friends. In my opinion, these are the things that will provide both inspiration and support for a creative life.
Huge thanks to Blake for taking the time to answer these questions! Spellbound will be out very soon, and Spellwright is already available everywhere. If you haven’t read it yet, I strongly urge you to do so – it’s a real treat.
In addition, and just in case you weren’t aware, or hadn’t voted yet, Spellwright is up for the Gemmell Award for Best Fantasy Debut, so if you loved the novel, head on over and vote!