03 December, 2012

Interview - Courtney Schafer, Author of The Shattered Sigil Trilogy

Courtney Schafer has become one of my new favorite authors with her debut series, The Shattered Sigil. She exploded on the scene last year with The Whitefire Crossing (review) and followed it up this year with a sequel, The Tainted City (review), that was just as good if not better. While I had no idea what to expect going into TWC, I was immediately charmed and would even go so far as to say it was my biggest surprise of last year. You can imagine I'm looking forward to read more of what Courtney has in store and the conclusion to this trilogy will be no less than stunning I'm sure.

If you're unfamiliar with this series, following is the description of the book one, The Whitefire Crossing:
Dev is a smuggler with the perfect cover. He's in high demand as a guide for the caravans that carry legitimate goods from the city of Ninavel into the country of Alathia. The route through the Whitefire Mountains is treacherous, and Dev is one of the few climbers who knows how to cross them safely. With his skill and connections, it's easy enough to slip contraband charms from Ninavel - where any magic is fair game, no matter how dark - into Alathia, where most magic is outlawed.

But smuggling a few charms is one thing; smuggling a person through the warded Alathian border is near suicidal. Having made a promise to a dying friend, Dev is forced to take on a singularly dangerous cargo: Kiran. A young apprentice on the run from one of the most powerful mages in Ninavel, Kiran is desperate enough to pay a fortune to sneak into a country where discovery means certain execution - and he'll do whatever it takes to prevent Dev from finding out the terrible truth behind his getaway.

Yet Kiran isn't the only one harboring a deadly secret. Caught up in a web of subterfuge and dark magic, Dev and Kiran must find a way to trust each other - or face not only their own destruction, but that of the entire city of Ninavel.
This interview delves mostly into the writing process and some very peripheral questions about magic and the world that . There is only one question that even asks anything about the third book in the series, but for the most part this interview is spoiler-free.

1. Let’s get to the important stuff right away. If the nominees in this last election were mages in Ninavel, what type of mages would they be?

Ha!  Always great to get a question no one's asked before. :)  As for the political nominees...they'd be middling mages of no great talent.  To quote Ruslan in The Tainted City, "Some men confuse magical power with the more mundane sort...Lesser mages are particularly prone to this error.  When they reach the limits of their talent, they often turn to the accumulation of wealth, or seek to reign over the untalented, as if that makes up for their lack." 

2. What got you in to writing? What self-respecting electrical engineer becomes a writer? Didn’t your parents teach you any better? J

My parents certainly tried.  I remember when I was at Caltech, I once considered switching majors from electrical engineering to geosciences. Volcanoes and earthquakes are cool, and besides, the geoscience students go to tromp around Death Valley as part of the classwork.  My father's response to this idea: "I'm not paying a fortune in tuition for you to end up scratching out a living from government grants. Besides, geoscience is only for losers who can't hack it in real physics. I raised you smarter than that."  (My father and Sheldon Cooper of Big Bang Theory share certain regrettable intellectual snobberies, although they differ wildly in other respects.)  I found a solution that kept both my parrents and me happy: I stayed in electrical engineering, but focused on image processing and remote sensing...which means now I get to do geoscience while earning an industry salary, ha! But I can only imagine my father's apoplexy if I'd said I wanted to become a writer.

Yet for all my parents' Tiger-Mom-ish attitude about careers, they always encouraged my love of reading, even of genres they didn't personally enjoy (like fantasy). And it's that love of stories that eventually led to me writing The Whitefire Crossing. I'm a fast reader, and I got frustrated with waiting for new books from my favorite authors to come out.  In the end, I decided I would stop whining and start writing more of the kind of book I wanted to read: a story with magic, intrigue, adventure, characters with secrets, reluctant friendships...and mountaineering, because I love that too.
3. Your two main characters are male and I always wonder what goes into a writer’s thought-process when writing characters of the opposite gender, especially the main characters. Obviously, this was done extremely compellingly in your books. Does it make the process more difficult (or even easier) and did you always know or want your two point-of-views (POV’s) to be male?

For me, it didn’t feel hard at all to write male main characters.  In both engineering and climbing, I’ve spent my life surrounded by guys, so I feel I’m at least reasonably familiar with the mindset.  Not that I think of it that way when I write…I just try to make the character on the page feel like a real person.  The gender surely factors into that, but for me it’s at a more subconscious and less deliberate level. 

As for why I chose to write two male main characters…well, I was writing the book I wanted to read, and I confess I’ve got a slight preference for male protagonists.  I think it's because as a reader I like to have that frisson of romantic attraction on top of my more general interest in a cool character. This strikes me as strange since I'm not a big romance fan. Yet similarly, my husband prefers to read books with female main characters, so at least I know I'm not alone.  Yet I've talked to many, many women who prefer to identify with a main character rather than (for lack of a better word!) objectify them. Doubtless they are more psychologically well-adjusted. :)  Anyway, my preference is only a slight one - I've loved many books with female main characters, and I can certainly see myself writing a female protagonist in future novels - but that's why Dev and Kiran are guys and not girls.

4. I really enjoyed your naming scheme. Many of the characters, especially the main ones (Dev, Kiran, and Marten for example), each had a shortened form of their name. It gives the flair of the exotic while making it easy for the reader to glide over. Was this just part of the process or did you come at this from a reader’s perspective?

For the Alathian characters like Marten, I was definitely thinking of “reader comfort.”  I wanted Alathian names to reflect the more formal, rigid nature of their society, so I made the full versions long (and set up the custom that Alathians only use family names in public; first names are reserved for immediate family and lovers, and even then, used only when assured of privacy).  Yet I didn’t want readers to stumble over long polysyllabic names all the time, especially in The Tainted City, which features a lot more Alathian characters.  So I decided the Alathians would use a short form of their family name when among friends (or close professional associates).  As you say, it’s much easier on the reader that way!  

The Ninavel natives like Dev, Melly, Cara, etc. have short, Anglicized names to help suggest to the reader the rough-and-tumble, wholly informal nature of Ninavel’s society.  (For anyone curious to know more about how I came up with all the character and place names, I did a guest post for Abhinav Jain’s “Names: A New Perspective” series in which I go into detail on the process.) 

5. I think I understand this and I know of other notable works that do the same (Heroes Die for instance), but how did you decide to have one POV written in first person and the other in third, especially in your debut?

When I was first writing The Whitefire Crossing, I wasn't thinking at all of publication yet. I played around with both 1st and 3rd person POV for Dev and Kiran, and found Dev flowed best for me in 1st, Kiran in 3rd. Since I was writing the book for myself, I happily kept right on writing it that way.  Of course, the real question is: why did that better flow happen? The answer lies in my preferences as a reader.  I love 1st person for snarky, active, highly opinionated characters (Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, Gen in Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief, etc).  For introspective characters, I prefer the greater emotional distance of 3rd person - it keeps the narrative from getting bogged down in angst and analysis.  It's also a heck of a lot easier to keep secrets from the reader in 3rd than in 1st, and I wanted many things about Kiran to be a gradual reveal.  So for me, the POV switch worked really well, and I don't regret doing it, though I'm aware it bothers some readers.

6. Saladin Ahmed, author of Throne of the Crescent Moon, is quoted on the front of The Tainted City and he describes a sword-and-sorcery renaissance that is going on right now in fantasy. More specifically, he says, “Fantasy is in the midst of an exciting sword-and-sorcery renaissance right now, and Courtney Schafer’s carefully observed, white-knuckled fiction is a shining example of this renaissance.” When you started writing, was this renaissance something you wanted to contribute to with The Shattered Sigil series?

Not as such.  I really was just writing the book I wanted to read.  (Even now, I’m not totally sure the Shattered Sigil books quite fit in the sword-and-sorcery subgenre…after all, there’s not a single sword in the novels.  Ice axes and knives, yes, but no swords.  That said, the story does have the adventurous feel and intimate character focus common to sword-and-sorcery books, so it’s certainly a better fit there than epic fantasy – I admit I twitch every time I see someone refer to Whitefire as epic.)   Anyway, genre quibbling aside, I’m with Saladin – as a reader, I’m hugely excited about the resurgence of sword-and-sorcery in a more modern form.  I’ve read so many great books over the last year – everything from Arabian-influenced fantasies like Saladin’s novel and Howard Andrew Jones’s The Desert of Souls, to urban capers full of clever criminals, like Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves.  It’s a great time to be a fantasy fan, with so many awesome new books hitting the shelves.

7. Magic plays a huge part in your books and we find out lots more information about it in The Tainted City. While the magic is glorious for its users, it seems to be extremely difficult to perform. How much of your electrical engineering background went into the creation of the magic in The Shattered Sigil? Also, would you say electrical engineering gives you as much ecstasy as the mages get from casting their magic?

If electrical engineering gave me as much ecstasy as blood mages get out of casting, I’d be spending all my free time designing algorithms and circuits, not writing fantasy novels. J I am quite fond of my day job, though, and certain elements of my engineering training definitely crept their way into the magic system of the Shattered Sigil books.  (As a co-worker once said, after I explained how blood mages cast channeled magic: “So…they basically lay out giant circuit diagrams to direct the flow of magical power.”  Me: “Oh my God, you’re right!”)  The mix of analysis, experience, and intuitive insight that mages like Kiran and Ruslan need to create their spell patterns is also reminiscent of analog circuit design, which is quite the black art (especially compared to the straightforward, logical world of digital circuitry).

8. I’ve heard you are a voracious reader, what are some of your writing influences? What’s one book you would recommend dropping everything to read?

I always find the influence question tough to answer, because I feel like my writing comes from a gestalt of the thousands of books that I’ve read, not to mention the life experiences that I’ve had.  How do you untangle it all?  But here are a few authors whose skill and talent amaze me, whose novels I’ve read and re-read until they’re falling apart: Dorothy Dunnett, Emma Bull, Joan D. Vinge, Carol Berg, C.J. Cherryh, Guy Gavriel Kay, Patricia McKillip, Megan Whalen Turner…and Mark Helprin, whose magical realism novel Winter’s Tale is the absolute perfect choice for a book to lose yourself in during the winter holidays.  (I re-read it every year just before New Years.)  The beauty and power of Helprin’s prose is breathtaking.  There’s a famous NYT review of Winter’s Tale that says, “…I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.”  That’s how I feel every time I recommend Winter’s Tale to others.  I flail around trying to describe the book (“It’s about New York City! But with flying horses, and time travelers, and an enigmatic bridge-builder…”), only to end up forcing the book into the confused listener’s hands, saying, “Never mind, just read it.”  
9. I’m always curious about how authors get started writing. With all that you’ve read, was writing just a natural extension? When did you think, I really gotta get all these ideas down on paper?

I mentioned before that I came up with the idea for The Whitefire Crossing when I got frustrated waiting for new books to come out, but I needed another catalyst to actually sit down and start writing.  Ever since I was a teen, an idea for a story would occasionally strike me and I’d play around with bits of scenes, but I never made it past a couple pages because I had this crazy idea that you shouldn’t move on in a story until you had a scene absolutely perfect.  It always took me so long to get any one scene “right” that I figured I wasn’t meant to be a writer. 

Thankfully, not long after I had the idea for Whitefire, some friends from work invited me to try NaNoWriMo with them.  (For anyone unfamiliar with NaNo, the idea is to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November.)  I was skeptical, but I gave it a shot – and wow, what a revelation!  To meet that wordcount, I had to turn off my inner editor and let words spill out without worrying over quality.  I found that if I could just get the story down first, later revisions were much easier.  Don’t get me wrong, plenty of revision was needed – after I completed my 120,000 word first draft of Whitefire, I ended up doing a white-page rewrite of the entire book to get it to publishable quality – but without that original push from NaNo, I’d never have written the story at all.  So I always look back fondly on November 2007 as the moment I first became a writer. 

10. How was the whole process for book two compared to writing book one, was it any easier than your first book? More or less stressful?

Oh gosh. Way, WAY more stressful.  Mostly because of time pressure.  Between day job and parenting, writing time is a rare and precious commodity for me.  I thought I had a handle on that, having done a huge revision of Whitefire right after my son was born.  Back then I was a total zombie from lack of sleep, and I had to write in brief 20-minute spurts during the rare intervals my son napped (he was not an easy baby).  I figured writing Tainted City would be no sweat in comparison – after all, my son had outgrown his difficult babyhood, I was at last getting more sleep, and I had the experience of writing the first novel under my belt. 

Hahaha.  I soon found that published authorhood brings with it a mountain of non-writing tasks.  Guest blogs and interviews to do, giveaways and other promo to arrange, emails to agents/editors/booksellers/convention folks/readers – all of that eats into writing time like you wouldn’t believe.  Plus, during 2011 I was running the Night Bazaar blog, which meant I had a pile of admin duties to handle every week.  The psychological pressures of the infamous second novel are nothing to sneeze at, either.  I wanted to write the best book I possibly could, and not disappoint readers who loved Whitefire - but obsessing over that was a sure route to stressing myself right out of any productivity.

In the end, I just kept plugging along, no matter how far away the finish line seemed.  I sacrificed sleep, paid for extra childcare on occasion, offloaded as many non-writing tasks as I could (I turned over the Night Bazaar to Night Shade Books in Jan 2012, which helped immensely), and tried my hardest to shut out all the inner demons and outer voices and write the story just for myself, the same as I did with Whitefire.  So yeah, writing The Tainted City was a real challenge – but the satisfaction and joy I feel now in the finished book is all more tremendous because it was so hard for me. 

11. Any info you can give on The Labyrinth of Flame, third book of The Shattered Sigil would be tremendous. Are there any plans for more books in this same world?

I’m working on Labyrinth right now, and having a blast.  I can’t give plot details without heading into spoiler territory, but I will say that Dev and Kiran are in for a hell of a time, with plenty of difficult decisions and dangerous alliances ahead.  Also, there will be canyoneering, and creatures out of myth, and readers will get to see a few new parts of the Shattered Sigil world.  (For those readers who’ve bemoaned the lack of a map in the previous novels – I’ll do my best to ensure Labyrinth has one, I promise!) The book doesn’t have an official release date yet.  Night Shade only bought two novels in my initial deal, and Labyrinth is not yet under contract.  Readers needn’t worry, though. No matter what happens, I intend to write the book – after all, I want to know how the story ends! – and I’ll publish it myself if necessary.

I might write more novels in the same world one day, though probably with different protagonists.  I definitely have some ideas for some short stories.  I’ve been meaning to write this one story set back in Dev’s Tainted days for ages now, but my writing time is so limited I always end up focusing on the novel at hand.  Perhaps once the first draft of Labyrinth is done, I’ll finally get the chance to play with short stories. 

12. How did you get to be so awesome and in your debut works for crying out loud?

Admit it, you’re just trying to see if you can inflate an author’s ego to the point it affects the Earth’s gravity.  I will not fall for your diabolical experiment, sir!  (But thanks for the kind words. J)


If you'd like to learn more about The Shattered Sigil series and Courtney Schafer, check out her website at www.courtneyschafer.com. She also has a signed set of The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City that are up for auction for Pat Rothfuss's Worldbuilders charity fundraiser. As Pat explains:
Heifer International is my favorite charity. It helps people raise themselves up out of poverty and starvation. Heifer promotes education, sustainable agriculture, and local industry all over the world. 
They don’t just keep kids from starving, they make it so families can take care of themselves. They give goats, sheep, and chickens to families so their children have milk to drink, warm clothes to wear, and eggs to eat.
You can go directly to the book auction page here.