I am delighted to be able to bring you another feature interview here at Smash Dragons. This week I had the immense privilege to be able to chat with writer, blogger, and game designer Stephen Aryan.
Stephen's fantasy novel, Battlemage, is out later this year from Orbit, and it is already generating a lot buzz and excitement around the community. Enjoy!
Stephen Aryan, welcome to Smash Dragons!
First up, tell us a little bit about yourself and your upcoming debut Battlemage.
I’m from the north east of England, but have lived in Yorkshire for about the last ten years. I live with my partner and two cats. I like real ale, I have a massive sweet tooth, I love genre TV, films and comics. For just over a year I’ve been trying to become an archer just in case The Walking Dead turns out to be a documentary, that way I stand a chance of surviving beyond the first week.
Battlemage is an epic fantasy story that is all about power. It follows the lives of three distinct groups of characters during the unfolding of a war. The warriors on the front lines, the Battlemages who are the magic users, and the leaders of the defending nation. The story includes magical battles, lots of fighting in the mud with swords, espionage and spy games, politics, religion and humour as well.
Why did you start writing? What motivated you to write this particular story?
I love stories. I love the power they have to transport you to other worlds and times and that they’re limited only by the writer’s imagination. You can create anything and go anywhere and do anything in a story. I’ve always enjoyed writing stories and at an early age I declared to my parents that I was going to be a writer. They smiled and nodded, and told me to eat vegetables. I’ve been writing in various formats for years.
This is about my eighth or ninth novel. This story was one I wrote because I just really wanted to see what happened. It was an idea that wouldn’t go away and kept bugging me, so eventually I had to get it out of my head and onto the page. Years ago I wrote a short story about a mature wizard called Balfruss who was at the end of this career and he went on a final quest with an old friend. It was done as a sort of homage to Legend by David Gemmell and his character, Druss. After writing the short story I wondered what had led the wizard up to that moment and pondered about his early adventures as a younger man and eventually that led me to Battlemage.
I’m guessing, based on the title, that magic and magic users will play a central role in this book? What can you tell us about this? Is there a magical system with rules in your story or is it more mysterious in nature?
Magic certainly plays a part in the story, but it is only one part of the overall picture. The changes to how people perceive magic and where it is going is one of the main foundations of the Age of Darkness trilogy (see German cover of Battlemage opposite)
Several of the characters on both sides of the war can wield magic. In this world magic users are a dying breed, because although children all over the world are being born with the gift, the system that was in place to train them has broken down. If someone isn’t shown how to control it magic can be quite unstable and explosive. This results in accidents that hurt people, unexpected deaths and a growing fear of magic because it seems so unpredictable and dangerous.
I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the magical system and I wanted to make it both very simple and logical. There are limits to what a person can do with it, and those who wield magic have particular strengths. No one is good at everything. A magic user can’t just wave their hands and do absolutely anything. Equally they can’t just keep using magic without it having a toll. So there is a physical and mental cost to using magic. The actual magical system is fairly traditional in some ways, but I’ve hopefully introduced a few new quirks.
Why fantasy? What is it about that genre that you find appealing?
It’s my favourite genre. I’ve read fantasy books my entire life and I love that you can tell any kind of story you want, within a fantasy framework, and it will still be labelled as fantasy. Working in marketing and from a practical standpoint I understand why. When someone walks into a bookshop they kind of know what to expect and where to find a particular kind of book, but the scope within fantasy itself is vast. It is a genre full of imagination and wonder.
What challenges did you face in getting Battlemage off the ground?
In terms of writing it, I think a lot of writers dislike their book at some point during the process and for me this is usually at the usual point of no return. This is where I think the story is good, but I’m not sure, but I’ve gone too far to stop, so I press on to the end and hope it all makes sense. Thankfully when I looked back I was reasonably happy, but could immediately see a number of things that needed work. Then I spent quite a bit of time revising and editing it, which is also a normal part of the process.
As a writer do you prefer to plant a seed and see where the story takes you, or do you design and plan out where it will eventually lead and write from there?
Once I tried writing by the seat of my pants and I just went with the story. It was awful. Really awful. That novel will never be shown to anyone ever! I plan the main beats or milestones of the story, and I also know the start, middle and end of the story. The joy for me comes in the exploration of how I get from point C to point D in the story. So as I write there is always some flex and some surprises, even for me, along the way.
Where did the inspiration for Battlemage come from?
That’s a tough one to pinpoint. A little came from the short story I mentioned, but also from just wanting to explore the lives of the other characters I’d been working on in my head. Also the structure of the world and what had happened in the past set certain events in motion. I also wanted to write a story where magic was not something in the shadows, which I’ve seen in quite a lot of modern fantasy novels. In Battlemage magic is not sleight of hand or misdirection. It’s people pulling down lightning from the sky. It’s real, it’s incredible power and very dangerous in the wrong hands.
I also wanted a story with non-human races in it. These are people that don’t think or act like us. There used to be a lot more of this in fantasy novels as well, but less so recently. All of this, plus lots of other stuff, fermented in the back of my brain over several years and that inspired the story.
Tell me more about the non-human races in Battlemage. Did you create some unique species for it or did you draw from more familiar races such as Elves?
I have created something new and over the course of the trilogy I explore some of them in detail. I have tried to show how others perceive them, how there are stereotypes for and against, and how they perceive themselves and, of course, what they think about humans.
Who are your literary influences? Why?
There are lots of writers who have influenced me over the years. Too many to list, and if I tried to name all of them I would miss someone out and feel guilty, but my biggest influence is undoubtedly David Gemmell. His fantasy novels are both simple and complex with characters that are incredibly flawed and very human.
His books have heart and while not every book has to be about something, and it can just be a fun adventure, almost all of his had an underlying message. Perhaps that’s why those books have stuck with me longer than many others over the years. There are other writers who are better wordsmiths, but in my opinion he never set out to do that. He just wanted to tell good stories and create interesting characters and I try to do the same. As Stephen King said (who is another big influence actually) in his On Writing book, use the first word that comes into your mind, if it’s appropriate, and don’t go to the thesaurus. So I take a leaf out of his book as well and try to make it simple and easy to read.
If you could pick one magical power to have what would it be, and why?
Oooh, this is like invisibility or fly, where someone has to pick one superpower. It’s so difficult! I’d go for some kind of power over metals like Magneto, so I could take over the world….or just bend spoons with my mind and freak people out.
You mentioned earlier that there were physical and mental consequences when using magic over a long period of time. What are they?
Long term usage of magic can kill, and every mage has their limit. They can only channel so much energy, people have different strengths, and if they try to push themselves too hard for too long, it will kill them. Wielding huge amounts of power every day is also physically taxing and there again it starts to eat away at a personally physically and they will wither away if they don't rest. The mental consequences are explored a little in Battlemage so I won't give too much away.
Tell me about the world that Battlemage is set in. War seems to be quite a common occurrence in it?
Hmm, not really. There have been conflicts in the past, but never on such a grand scale as this. The conflict in Battlemage is in essence a first world war, and even then, other parts of the world are mentioned that have not been drawn into the conflict. Even so the war is fairly widespread and the repercussions will be long lasting. Predominantly the story takes place in two main locations and we see the impact of the war on both places throughout the story.
You have a background that includes not only writing, but also podcasting, reviewing, and game design. Where do you find the time to write a novel amidst all of this?
Don’t forget the day job too! It all comes down to priorities. If you really love doing something, you will find the time to do it by not doing something else. I love MMORPGs and have been playing them since the first days of Everquest. Before that I’ve been playing computer games on various platforms since the days of the ZX Spectrum 81.
There are a lot of games I would really like to be playing right now, but I’ve stopped myself from buying them otherwise I would get sucked in and disappear down a rabbit hole. Then six months would go by and I’d wonder why I was still on page 3 of the latest novel. I call myself a lapsed gamer because I only dabble a little now and then.
Podcasting is a great way to discuss things in geek culture and it’s allowed me to connect to a wide range of people all over the world with similar interests. It’s a great way to unwind and now that the editing doesn’t take me hours like it used to, it doesn’t take up that much time. I used to run a book review blog and do reviews for various websites like Tor.com but I stopped doing all of that a few years ago to have more time for writing.
How has your love of comics helped shape you as a writer? Did you draw on anything in particular when writing Battlemage?
It didn’t shape me when writing Battlemage but I also write comics, so reading them over the years has definitely helped with that. Doing both has revealed there are parallels between the two, because writing a novel starts as a solitary thing but quickly it becomes a team effort, with your agent and your editor, then the copy editor and so on. With a comic book there are usually two storytellers, the artist and the writer, then there’s the colourist and letterer, and sometimes a designer, so it’s definitely a team effort as well.
Tell me a random fact about yourself.
Nine times out of ten I’m the tallest person in a room. If it’s not me, then it’s James Smythe or David Towsey.
Hypothetical question. The end of days is upon us, and death stalks the land. You can save only one book from your collection to preserve for future generations. What would it be, and why?
That’s a hard question! Probably my battered old paperback copy of Dune. It’s one of my favourite books. It is an incredible work of fiction. The story is brilliant and it’s jammed packed with so much stuff it isn’t surprising to me that it spawned several sequels (which I think diminish in quality), prequels written by Herbert’s son and Kevin J. Anderson, one film and a couple of really good TV series.
Batman or Superman? Why?
As much as I like Superman, as a symbol of hope and his story, it has to be Batman every single time. He’s always five steps ahead of everyone and even when he’s in a room, part of his mind is elsewhere thinking stuff through. He has no superpowers at all and yet he is a member of the Justice League and rightly so. He can go toe to toe with any of them and has beaten most of them in the past.
What is your take on the genre at the moment? Do you think it is flourishing or stagnating?
I think it’s flourishing. There are so many amazing new writers coming out all the time, some of whom you’ve spoken to, like Jen Williams. When I was growing up there was far less content, TV, films, books and comics, now there is so much I can’t keep up with all of the fantasy writers, never mind anything else.
Who would win in a cage match between Balfruss and Druss?
Well, that would be a short fight, as Balfruss has magic. But, if it was a fight between Vargus and Druss then that would be a more even match. I wouldn’t like to put any money on that fight!
If you could pick the brain of one author (dead or alive) for a day who would it be and why?
Stephen King. I am a big fan of his work and one of my favourite novels is The Green Mile. He never plans his novels and has written about his process and how he sees it as uncovering a fossil. I think he would be a fascinating guy to spend a day with.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently working on the first draft of book 3 in the Age of Darkness trilogy. Book 2 is back with my editor for her feedback, so right now I’m just focused on book 3 and there are a couple of comic book projects ticking along.
Standard cliché question… best writing tip?
Finish the book. Put your bum in the chair and finish the book. Get it done, then you can come back and edit it, rip it to pieces and sew it all back together again. Don’t stop to do big edits along the way. Find whatever technique or tricks work to keep you moving forward and, as Shia LeBeouf says in his bonkers internet video – DO IT!
And finally, can we expect to see you at any events or conventions later this year?
I’m at Nine Worlds in August in London, and Fantasycon in October in Nottingham. In September there will be a launch for Battlemage, most likely in London, but I’ll post more information about that when I have it.
Stephen Aryan, thanks for chatting to Smash Dragons!
Battlemage will be out in late September 2015. You can keep track of Stephen via his website and social media outlets such as twitter. Trust me everyone... this one is going to be amazing!
Until next time, be nice to each other, and keep on reading!