Month: August 2009

A Mage of None Magic (Interview with author A. Christopher Drown)

This September brings the publication of A. Christopher Drown’s A Mage of None Magic: The Heart of the Sisters, Book One from Tyrannosaurus Press. Specializing in science fiction and fantasy, the press has been around since 2002. Recently, Drown graciously agreed to chat with us about his writing, working with a small press, and the intimate details of his mental meat thermometer.

Your novel has an interesting title. Could you explain what it means?

“A mage of none magic” is from a bit of verse in the story that refers  to a mysterious figure known as the Apostate. It’s also an allusion to  a major theme I want to explore with the series—the chicken/egg  relationship between messiah and prophecy. A friend of mine suggested  using the line when I was fumbling for a title, and when she did I  felt like a Dr. Seuss who’d written a story about a cat in a hat but  had no idea what to call it.

I also notice that it’s “book one” of a series. How long of a series  do you envision? Along similar lines, why a trilogy as opposed to a  self-contained single volume?

I seem to be the kind of writer who’s just as interested to see how a story’s going to turn out as (hopefully) a reader would be. I view  storytelling a bit like walking a hallway lined with doors; the end is  discernible but how long it takes to get there depends on how many  interesting doors-within-doors are discovered along the way. While I  definitely have an overall arc in mind for the “Heart of the Sisters”  books, the height and length of that arc is not exactly fixed. So, I’d  say no fewer than three books, but probably no more than five. Unless,  of course, I’m wrong.

When deciding how best to approach and present the story I wanted to  tell, the story itself of course took priority; however, the realities  of publishing also had to be considered. The simple truth is first- time novelists have a hard enough job getting into print without the  added disadvantage of asking a publisher to invest in a monstrous  thousand-plus-page manuscript by an unknown author. Taking a lesson  from George Lucas, I wrote the opening episode of a larger tale that I  felt would stand well enough on its own if need be, and therefore  might be more palatable for a publisher, and then could conceivably  pave the way for follow-up novels.

Tell me a little bit about Tyrannosaurus Press. What are they known  for? How did you get in touch with them? What was it like to work with  them?

Tyrannosaurus Press is a small company based originally in New Orleans  but now near Baton Rouge following Hurricane Katrina. They almost  closed up shop because of the huge hit they took from that storm—loss  of facilities, loss of inventory—but in the end decided to stick it  out. They publish speculative fiction—novels and anthologies. A few  years ago a friend of mine who’d written for their newsletter urged me  to submit some of my short fiction. I did, they liked it, and from  there a very nice friendship ensued. They’ve since been kind enough to  include a story of mine in each of the first two volumes of their  short fiction anthology, “Beacons of Tomorrow.”

A couple summers ago I had lunch with the company’s owner and fellow writer, Bret Funk, just because I happened to be driving through Baton  Rouge on the way home from a conference; I thought it’d be nice for  the two of us to actually shake hands and move things beyond the e- mail inbox. I’d only intended it as a casual get-together, but over  burgers Bret surprised me with an offhand, “So, I want to publish your  novel.” I replied with a quick-witted, “Uh, okay,” and that was that.

Working with TPress has been a genuine pleasure. Their unwavering focus is the story, and how to make that story the best it can be—which, in my case, they did. “Mage” is a much cleaner, much tighter book than it was when they initially took it up, for which I’m exceedingly grateful. They have an option for my next novel, and I’m excited about the prospect of starting the process all over again because the first time was a lot of fun, as well as terrific learning experience.

More generally, how would you describe your writing style?

I’ve been told I have a pretty fluid style; I prefer to let rhythm and  cadence dictate word choice, and often permit flavor to trump syntax.  If anyone were to say my prose reminds them even a little of Ray  Bradbury or Alice Sebold, you’d hear no complaint from me.

And your writing process?

Rex Stout, who wrote the “Nero Wolfe” novels, is said to have been such an exceptionally regimented writer, and to have held so strictly to his daily word count, that if he finished a novel before meeting that day’s quota he simply rolled the page out of the typewriter, rolled a blank sheet back in, and began his next novel right there and  then, even stopping in mid-sentence when he reached the limit he’d  set. Take that rigorous sense of discipline, turn it completely
the  other way around, and you’ll have something akin to my writing process. I try to make at least some progress on my writing every day,  but being a parent of two and having a full-time job makes that a  challenge. A great deal of my process goes on inside my head. When the  little mental meat thermometer pops up to let me know an idea is done,  that’s when I have to sit down and write it out.

Who are some of your influences?

Poetry caught my ear first; T.S. Eliot, to be precise. My introduction  to speculative fiction came via a worn paperback of Anne McCaffrey’s  “Dragonflight” that my father loaned to me and never got back. The  book that made me see fantasy storytelling as literature was T. H.  White’s “The Once and Future King,” while the book that made me  realize I wanted to write stories of my own was Joel Rosenberg’s “The  Sleeping Dragon.” I’ve already mentioned Bradbury. There’s also  Frederic Brown, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and a few hundred others.  Oh, and I can’t forget Roger Ebert—yes, the film critic. Roger Ebert  is hands down one of the best writers alive.

Finally, who do you see as the ideal reader for this book? In other words, who is your audience?

For me the ideal reader would be, of course, anyone who also purchases  copies of “Mage” for their entire family, all their friends, and  everyone at their office. My target audience, though… I guess I’d  say is comprised of those who appreciate that no matter how  fantastical the setting, a good story still boils down to the humanity  at its center; that for all the magic and wondrousness that abounds,  people who actually live, breathe, fret and fail have to populate the  world at hand—not just those who fight and conquer; and that adventure  is derived as much from within as it is from without.

Every Boat Turns South

every-boat-turns-southWhen protagonist Matt Younger returns home after years of being ostensibly lost at sea in J.P White’s debut novel, Every Boat Turns South, he does so ensconced in “the musty tang of things growing and rotting in the same catch.” The moment, needless to say, is pregnant with ambivalence, and the tension between past and future, life and death, hope and despair is one that White develops beautifully throughout this emotionally intelligent tale of high-seas adventure.

The novel is framed much like the classic Persian tale of One Thousand and One Nights. Rather than telling stories to keep himself alive, however, the protagonist is racing against the clock to make a full confession to his dying father; long regarded as the cause of his superstar brother’s death, Matt has been drifting for years, finding himself in one brand of trouble after another, with his nights usually ending up at the bottom of a bottle of a rum. Yet even as Matt flees from his past, the ghost of his brother is always nearby, haunting his every move. Hence the need for Matt’s confession: he wants to make a clean break with the past and start his life anew. Of course, such things are often easier said than done.

In addition to One Thousand and One Nights, Every Boat Turns South boasts a strong literary heritage. Hints of American classics ranging from Herman Melville to Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck saturate the novel, but perhaps the strongest connection I can make is to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, as the prodigal son returns home to make amends with his family only to be met with ongoing resistance. The big difference this time around, however, is that we finally get a chance to find out what the son was up to while he was gone, and Every Boat Turns South serves up the sin and misery in spades.

A gripping page-turner, Every Boat Turns South is the perfect antidote to the end-of-summer blahs. White’s gift for suspense is matched only by his lyrical facility with the language of the sea. Highly recommended.


KellandAs regular readers of this blog may have noticed, I’m a big fan of books published by Casperian Press. Mouth of the Lion by Lily Richards, The Tea House by Paul Elwork, and Sound and Noise by Curtis Smith are all wonderful titles that demonstrate the diversity and quality that I’ve come to associate with Casperian in particular and small presses in general. In September, Casperian will release their latest title, Kelland by Paul Bens. As with Casperian’s other titles, Kelland is a moving and complex novel populated by a diverse and intriguing cast of characters. Recently, author Paul Bens took a break from promoting his debut novel to chat with us about the project.

Q: Tell us a little bit about Kelland. What is the novel about, and what inspired you to write it?

A: Kelland is my first novel after having published a dozen or so short stories, all dealing with the darker aspects of human nature. It tells the story of four people, brothers Minh and Toan, a little boy named George and a mother named Melanie. Although none of them are aware of it, each of the characters has reached an important turning point in their lives, a nexus when things can get much better or much worse depending on which path one takes. Each of them meets a mysterious person named Kelland who, though quite cruel and frightening at times, tries to help each of them. For George, Kelland seems like an angel; for Melanie, a confidant; for Minh and Toan, a lover. Kelland becomes their guide who, along the way, reveals some very dark secrets each have buried.

The inspiration is a bit more nebulous. A few years before writing the novel I found myself at a major turning point in my own life, discovering some not so pleasant information in my own past. I’m not one who can sit down and journal out my thoughts or write about myself in any kind of coherent or memoir-ish way; so I began crafting a short story only featuring the character of George. Once I’d finished that story, certain news stories started popping up and they related directly to my own struggle and the struggle of George, the character I’d created. It was then I realized this was a universal story, one that touched many, many people. So I began reworking the story and it became, ultimately, Kelland.

Q: Kelland follows multiple story lines. As a writer, how did you juggle these?

A: Luckily, each storyline is independent of the others throughout the majority of the novel, coming together only near the end, so I had wide latitude to play with each one. Honestly, the different storylines also gave me a break when I was writing because, if I got stuck on a particular issues in one storyline, I could jump to another without losing any focus. The real challenge came in that each storyline had its own unique timeline as well. Minh and Toan’s storylines stretch individually all the way from 1975 when they escape Saigon through to 1998. George’s story is more compact, spanning the years from 1996 to 1998, as does Melanie’s story. Since they all ultimately intersect via the character of Kelland, making sure the timeline in each story remained consistent was more complex and required lots of re-reading, an Excel chart or two, plus some very good and trusted friends going “Uh, what’s up with that?”

Q: One of the plots in your novel focuses on a pair of Vietnamese brothers named Minh and Toan Ngo. How did these characters make their way into your work? What about them called out to you, as it were?

A: As I was crafting the novel, I knew I needed it to tell the story of many people, not just one particular racial make-up. The universality was very important to me and the world I was writing needed to reflect the world I’m living in, a multi-cultural world. I also knew I wanted two brothers in the novel because that older brother-younger brother dynamic in relation to the themes I was exploring has so many levels to it…loving, competitive, volatile. Years ago, I worked very closely with the Asian Pacific American entertainment community here in Los Angeles, trying to make the industry aware of the vast pool of talent in the APA community, both in front of and behind the camera. So when it came time to craft my brothers, I chose to make them Vietnamese American for a couple of reasons. First, having them escape Viet Nam allowed me to create a deep bond — brothers who had been through so much together and had become so close — so that when that bond is shattered it hopefully has a huge emotional impact. Secondly, Vietnamese American (and Asian American in general) characters are hugely underrepresented in literature, and finally, because the story I’m telling relates to so many people and Minh and Toan, though Vietnamese, I think help to represent people of color from every background.

Q: In the novel, Kelland is a mysterious figure who appears as a small boy, a lover, and a priest. He’s also been described as an enigma and a puzzle. Given the mysterious nature of the title character, do you consider your novel a “mystery” in the traditional sense?

A: It certainly has elements of mystery, as well as a touch of horror, but I don’t think it could be classified as traditional mystery or horror in any way that would be fair to the reader who might be craving such a genre piece. Kelland very much is a story about relationships–family and otherwise–and the secrets that get in the way of those relationships being what they should and could be. The mystery or horror of it is who and what Kelland is to each of them. Kelland is what each of them need at that particular point in their lives in order to move on from a past that, whether they know it or not, has a stranglehold on them. So, Kelland can be a lover or a son and angel or the devil. In the end I think the novel is best labeled literary fiction or perhaps even better is psychological drama.

Q: What writers have influenced your work? Who do you like to read?

A: Wow. That’s actually a tough one for me to answer in that I think, one way or another, I absorb and learn from every writer I read. Good or bad, each book teaches me something about construction or theme or style, and depending on what I’m writing I try to utilize the lessons I’ve learned from each writer.

Stylistically, I think that Poppy Z. Brite had a huge influence on me. Her early works — and in particular Drawing Blood — had a beautiful rhythm and flow that evokes time, place and sensation so masterfully. Her characters also really spoke to me as a gay man because they were wonderfully realistic, heroic and flawed, emotional and stoic. She doesn’t write gay men as stereotypes, but neither does she paint gay men as saints. She captures a really wonderful balance in her characters that I greatly appreciate. Armistead Maupin also has had an influence, but then in some way I think he has had an influence on many gay writers. In his Tales of the City series, he has an ease and simplicity of storytelling that I covet in every way possible. Yet, he can turn that around, and go darker and more complex while still remaining riveting. He never loses sight of the characters. Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener, two of his non-Tales books, are absolutely brilliant. Noel Alumit’s novel Letters to Montgomery Clift actually inspired me to get up off my ass and write because that novel was so deeply moving. Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh haunts me to this day, and Han Ong’s darkly funny Fixer Chao is a comfort read.

These days, I’m fascinated by Hawaiian history and Hawaiian historical fiction. Alan Brennert’s Moloka’i and Honolulu just blew me away, and right at this moment I’m reading Honor Killing by David Stannard, which explores not only the murder of Joseph Kahahawai, but also the political and social climate in Hawai’i in the 1930s that led to such a senseless killing. Otherwise, I enjoy most fiction, from gay romance (Ann Somerville, Kit Zheng and Lee Benoit being favorites) to sci-fi, but I think it is dark psychological fiction and/or horror that always sucks me in the most.

Q: I love the cover of Kelland. Who did the artwork and book design? Did you have a hand in the process?

A: Ah. I’m glad you mentioned the cover. The artwork was created by a wonderful artist named V.L. Ta who I’ve known for years and who also checked me on all things Vietnamese in the novel. He actually came up with the concept prior to my signing with my publisher, Casperian Books, and I was hopeful that they would want to use it because it so fits the tone of the novel. Luckily, Casperian was very open to it. V.L. did a mock-up of the cover for them, and after a few minor changes, we had a finished cover. As far as the layout of the book, that was solely in the hands of my amazing editor Lily Richards who put it together beautifully. I’m a little bit spoiled by Casperian, I think, because they gave me input into the layout (not to mention the cover) that bigger publishing houses probably wouldn’t. I’m very grateful for that.

Q: Finally, before you wrote Kelland, you worked for many years in the entertainment industry. How did your experience in this field influence your writing?

A: I think working in the industry really created a very visual style of writing. At least I hope it comes off visual to the reader. As I write, I see the scenes playing out in my head almost as if through the camera lens, and I try to set the mood and tone a director of photography would, except I’m trying to do it with words instead of lighting (though I do pay homage in the novel to noir lighting effects). It also gave me an understanding of finding a way to “hook” the readers in the first chapter, whether that be through endearing characters, a visceral reaction to the words, or a unique structure. There are so many books out there that I, as a writer, really feel it is my responsibility to grab the reader immediately so they choose to read the book I’ve written rather than the next on the shelves. Finally I think where it has influenced me is that I know so many talented actors that I’m able to picture exactly who my characters are by relating them to wonderful people I’ve known. It’s that moment of “Oh, this would be a great part for Dustin Nguyen” or “Wow, wouldn’t Bibi Besch (rest her soul) have been wonderful in this type of role.” So, even though it’s highly unlikely my book would ever make it to the film screen, in my imagination I’m building a character I think would be fun or interesting or challenging for people to play.

The Price of Ovulation

ovulationReading Terrence Mix’s The Price of Ovulation, I’m reminded of the old joke about the guy who likes to talk: ask him what time it is, and he’ll tell you how to make a watch. Along similar lines, Mix doesn’t just provide his reader with information on fertility drugs and their negative side effects; he also tells the story of how he came upon the information. Unlike the butt of the watch joke, however, a good storyteller can breathe life into the story of how the watch was made — and Mix certainly has the ability to do this. Throughout his book, Mix offers up his own personal tale of his efforts to uncover evidence that use of Clomid, a drug used to induce ovulation, can lead to birth defects — and, more significantly, that the drug’s producer suppressed this evidence. Anyone seeking fertility treatment will find this book to be of great interest.