After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decade, Brian began writing epic fantasy. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades, the start of his series, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award, the Reddit Stabby for best debut, and scored semi-finalist spots in the Goodreads Choice Awards in two categories: epic fantasy and debut. The second book in the trilogy, The Providence of Fire, was also a Goodreads Choice semi-finalist. The concluding volume of the trilogy, The Last Mortal Bond, is available for preorder now.
Brian lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order.
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/BrianStaveley
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- Blog: On the Writing of Epic Fantasy
Amber: Thanks for taking the time to talk with both myself and our readers today. Let’s start with a simple one. What do you think makes a good story? What separates the standard from the standout?
Brian: Much discussion around fantasy novels seems to center on questions of world-building, monsters, magic systems. While I love that material as much as anyone—I’d hardly be writing in this genre if I didn’t—at the end of the day I think every story comes down to character. The baddest-assed of all magical swords can’t save a story if you don’t give a damn about the character wielding it. As for what makes a good character—a person who wants something, but is blocked from achieving the object of her desire, at least in part, by something fundamental about herself.
Amber: You started writing with poetry, and then transitioned to writing full-length fiction. Multiple book spanning stories as well. What was the catalyst for that? How did you go from poetry to larger, more diverse, driven worlds?
Brian: I still read quite a bit of poetry; I just finished, for instance, going through Larkin’s complete poems for the umpteenth time. I love the technical challenges of writing poetry, the demands of working inside established forms, in particular. Genre fiction might seem removed from such concerns, but I’ve found quite the opposite. The large fantasy epic has its formal strictures just as well as the sonnet. The history of the genre and the reader’s expectations require technical responses from the author. Take the hoary trope of the “master swordsman”. Readers have come to expect it, just as they do the turn of a sonnet—the trick is to find a way to at once satisfy and upend those expectations.
Amber: Who, or what, would you say are your biggest influences as a writer? Was there someone or something that got you on that path?
Brian: The question of influences is always a tricky one; I certainly don’t feel as though I can trace every influence back to its source. The sources of most creative tributaries remain obscure, even to the writer. In those cases where you can identify an influence, it’s easy to end up sounding like an asshole. I think a lot of Homer’s (and Dante’s) use of simile, for instance, particularly the way in which both will use simile to suspend the action of the scene, to create a sort of literary slow-motion. That doesn’t mean I think I write like Homer or Dante.
Amber: Recently I read a short of yours called ‘The Log Goblin’, and I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. What made you want to do a story about a simple goblin stealing logs? Normally fantasy is about something more… epic.
Brian: In that case, I was writing a story for a reading. There was a long roster of authors, and so I needed something really short. Again, it was in part this technical challenge that appealed to me. The story is interesting to me in that it’s one of the few cases in which I can track the creative process, almost from start to finish. It started with the title. I was looking out the window at a pile of logs bucked for firewood, and the word “goblin” popped into my head, almost undoubtedly because of the assonance with the vowel sound of “logs”. This is what you get for writing poetry for so many years. After that, the creative question became practical: what does a log goblin do? Well, goblins are mischievous, so they probably steal. So we’ve got a mystery story. That informed the basic structure. Then it was just a matter of figuring out what the goblin was doing with the logs . . .
Amber: Speaking of ‘epic’ fantasy stories, you’re no stranger there. The third book in your series Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne is due out this year. Congrats on that. What, to you, is the best part of writing such a large, and diverse group of characters over consecutive releases?
Brian: If “The Log Goblin” was a little minuet, the Unhewn Throne books are a symphony. The range available, over three quarters of a million words, is at once terrifying and enthralling. There’s room, in all that space, for multiple types of story: murder mystery, romance, quest, picaresque, extended training montage—and there’s room for all sorts of characters. The challenge, of course, is bringing all of these elements into unified, harmonious relation to one another. I’m often surprised, even now, by how often I think in terms of musical metaphor when writing. Sometimes a certain scene needs more beats, sometimes it needs a change of key, sometimes the tempo is wrong for the action, sometimes the polyphony obscures the vocal line. The list goes on. It’s thrilling trying to govern all these elements, to yoke them together.
Amber: Staying with the Unhewn Throne series, you’ve built a fairly big world for those characters to live in. How did you go about creating that world, and deciding what parts would end up where?
Brian: I started with mythology. Before I wrote a word of the first novel, I had scores of pages detailing the history of the world’s gods, the genesis of the world itself, the evolution and development of that world, its metaphysics and rules. This was all a part of the fun. I’d spent years teaching comparative religion and philosophy, and these books gave me a chance to explore some of the ideas I’d been reading and teaching for so long. It took months to get all that in place, but the time was well spent. Writing the story at hand was much easier, given that I had a solid foundation to build on.
Amber: Sticking with the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, after finishing the first book, The Emperor’s Blades, one might wonder what happened to some of the characters. You answered one of those questions with the ‘The Last Abbot of Ashk’lan’. It’s true that we readers always want more, but what prompted you to write that follow up short story?
Brian: I honestly can’t remember. I always liked the character of Akiil, and so it seemed natural to go back to him, to explore the tumultuous events concluding the first book from his perspective. All of these characters have their own histories, ideas, hopes, terrors, aspirations. In the best of all possible worlds, I’d give every one of them full billing—a story, a novella, even a novel. It’s like life—the main characters are only the main characters from a certain point of view.
Amber: You’ve been at this for a little while, and I can’t imagine what we’ll see next from you. Is there anything you can share with us about your future works? Will there be more in your current series, or are you switching gears to something else? Will we get more shorts to give readers more story and info on secondary characters in your works as well?
Brian: I’m thrilled to have signed on with Tor (in both the US and UK) for four more books. At least some of these will be stand-alone novels following characters that have grown to be favorites with readers. The book I’m working on now, for instance, is a single-POV, first-person novel told in the voice of one of the secondary characters in the Unhewn Throne trilogy. There are dozens of stories I’d like to tell in this world, hundreds, but I’m also keen to try my hand at something entirely new.
Amber: I want to thank you again for your time today. I’m really enjoying what you’ve written so far. But, before we go I’d like to ask if you have any advice for the future writers of the world?
Brian: Temperament is more important than technique. If you can hear criticism, improve, and just not quit, the technique will come. If you can’t do those things, the technique won’t matter.
Find below a selection of publications by Brian Staveley:
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