I am delighted to bring you yet another instalment in our ongoing interview series here at Smash Dragons. This week I had the amazing opportunity to sit down and chat with the evil mastermind known as Brian Staveley (seriously... he is a nice guy). Now for those of you who don't know Brian he is the author of the incredible Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne series, and one of the few authors who I genuinely believe will change the landscape of speculative fiction in years to come. I hope you enjoy!
Brian, welcome to Smash Dragons!
First up, tell us a little about yourself and the Unhewn Throne series.
I’m the guy who still hasn’t figured out that I should put the mug down after the third cup of coffee.
The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne follows three adult children of a murdered emperor – a monk, a special forces soldier, and a politician – as they try to untangle the conspiracy behind their father’s murder, while staying alive themselves.
Why did you become a writer? Did you always envisage yourself writing stories for a living?
I took a slightly unusual track to the writing of epic fantasy. I studied poetry as an undergraduate, then did my MFA in poetry. Half my bookshelves are still filled with volumes of poetry (I’ve been reading Larkin this week), and for about a decade, I taught high school while writing poems. The thing about poems, though, is that there are about forty-two people worldwide who will actually pay you money to read them. Everyone I knew who was writing poetry had another job, sometimes several other jobs, and I got to thinking, “What if I tried my hand at a genre that people are a little more excited to read?” I’ve been a voracious reader of both fantasy and science fiction since I was a kid, and so that seemed like the most exciting place to dive in.
Can you remember the first work of fiction of you wrote? What was it about?
This is a subject of some serious debate between my parents and my wife. My parents insist that I wrote Anty’s Avinchir – the illustrated tale of a small ant who leaves his family to have various adventures before returning home – in a hospital waiting room when I was three. My wife argues that there was no way I was smart enough as a three year old to write even a rudimentary book.
Both of your books have had an amazing reception so far. Are you still surprised by their popularity amongst fans?
I’m just delighted. One of my favourite parts of the job is when readers get in touch to yell at me: “You asshole! I’m falling asleep at my desk today because I stayed up all night reading your ‘Kent-kissing book!” I know that feeling so well, that joy of being so immersed in a story that you just can’t put it down, and it’s so much fun to be able to provide that, in whatever measure, to others.
One of the things I love about your work is that you achieve a great balance between wonderful characterization and creative and dynamic world building. I’m curious, was this something you had to be conscious of whilst writing so that you wouldn’t get lost in either one?
In my mind, it’s all about character. All the other stuff is the stage, and while the stage is important (a big nod to all the lighting and set designers working their assess off out there), it doesn’t mean much if there’s no one to populate it. Whenever I get stuck with these stories, I go back to the characters: what do they want? What terrifies them? What are their darkest secrets? Their proudest moments?
What hurdles did you face in getting your work published? How have you changed as a writer from before your debut to now?
It’s going to sound trite, but the toughest part for me is writing the books. There’s been a moment in each of them so far (sometimes several moments) when I felt just totally lost, like I’d lost control of everything and couldn’t go on. That’s a tough place to be. This isn’t to downplay the difficulty of actually breaking into the industry. I think I queried about fifty agents, most of whom never responded, before I got a letter back from Hannah Bowman, who is now my agent, reading, “I really like what you have here…”
Strangest research you have ever undertaken for your books?
This is another place where my fans and readers have been just awesome. When I get stuck on some technical point, sometimes I throw it open to twitter or facebook, and that’s led to some great discussions about avian anatomy, maritime history, and, oddly, some serious geometry. Writing can be lonely, and it’s great fun to chat with folks with different skill areas about specific things in the book. I got an email from a doctor once. He was very nice, but wanted to point out a flaw in one of my corpses. I love stuff like that.
In your opinion what is your best writing skill? Worst?
Best: Hearing and assimilating criticism.
Worst: A tendency to overwrite certain types of scene.
I loved the concept of the Vaniate and how it was explored, and I adored the themes and ideas surrounding the Blank God and the Csestriim. I’m curious, where did you draw those ideas from when you were writing?
I taught ancient world history, comparative religion, and philosophy for a bunch of years, and I can’t overstate the importance of those subjects when it came to the world-building of The Emperor’s Blades. The Shin religion, for instance, is sort of an amalgam of Zen with certain strains of Taoism. Anyone familiar with Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu will hear echoes of those texts in the Shin aphorisms. Stuff like that is packed through the books.
If you were dropped into the world of the Unhewn Throne how long do you think you would survive for?
Really depends where I was dropped. I could probably manage all right in Ashk'lan. I've spent a lot of time in the mountains climbing, running, biking, exploring, being cold, being dehydrated, being lost. The Bone Mountains, in fact, are modeled partly on the Sierras in California, where I've spent a lot of time. I don't think I'd stand up as well to Kettral training, and I'd be lost entirely in the political machinations of Annur...
The Last Mortal Bond comes out early next year. In one sentence, what can we expect from the finale of the trilogy?
Bigger, better, faster, more.
Where did you draw your inspiration from for the magic in your books? Will we see some more insane magical battles in the TLMB?
I wanted a magic system that had the possibility to really impact both character and plot. The nature of the leaches wells has profound implications for who they become as people: Balendin, for instance, or Sigrid. There's an addiction there, an addiction to the power and the source of that power, that I found really interesting to explore. Also, the fact that those wells are closely guarded secrets gives provides the possibility for some interesting narrative mysteries and plot reveals. And yes, there's some serious magic in The Last Mortal Bond...
You recently signed a new 4-book deal with TOR. Can you tell us a little more about this deal? Is it a new series, or four standalones?
We haven’t decided on all four books yet, but without a doubt at least two of them will be stand-alone novels set in the world of the Unhewn Throne. There are a lot of stories in this universe I’m still eager to tell.
I’m going to be an ass for a sec and ask a fanboy question… a book about Flea… any plans? (Please forgive me… I bet you’ve heard that question over and over)
Everyone seems to want a Flea book, and I’m eager to write one. It’s not what I’m working on now, but I’d say it’s almost an inevitability in the next five years.
What would be your weapon of choice for gladiatorial combat against the Flea?
An M1 Abrams Tank. Anything less and I'd be dead in moments.
If you could sit down with another author for the day in order to pick their brain who would it be and why?
Ursula Le Guin. I’ve admired her work since I was a little kid, and I keep going back to some of her books over and over, taking away different things as I get older. I’ve encountered few writers, alive or dead, as sensitive, versatile, and brilliant.
What is your take on the state of speculative fiction at the moment?
I live in on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. I’m about the last person who has any real sense of the state of anything aside from our woodpile…
What are you reading right now? Recommendations to keep us busy until TLMB comes out?
Just finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which really blew me away. I’ve been a fan for a while, and I think this is her best book. Now reading Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names and really loving it. Just started Kevin Summers’ The Bleak December, and while I’m only a couple dozen pages in, I’m really digging it. Also, Larkin’s complete poems is excellent, but boy, some of his early stuff was crap.
And finally, where do you see yourself in ten years?
I can barely keep track of where I’m supposed to be in ten days!
Brian Staveley, thank you for dropping by!
Thanks for having me!
You can pick up both of Brian's books released so far (The Emperor's Blades and The Providence of Fire) at all good online retailers and bookshops. I'd recommend them both to anyone with even a remote interest in fantasy. They are seriously that good. You can also keep up to date with Brian via social media and his website. And finally keep an eye out for the next instalment, titled The Last Mortal Bond. That bad boy is due out in March 2016, and is already one of the most hotly anticipated releases for that year.
Until next time peeps, be nice to each other. And keep on reading!