The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
30 May 2007
Congratulations, Charles, on having two new sword-and-planet novels, Swords of Talera and Wings over Talera, published this spring by Borgo Press, and thank you for visiting my blog.
Thanks, Shauna. And thanks for inviting me today.
The Talera Cycle fantasy trilogy is being published by a small press, as was your 2002 horror novel Cold in the Light. What do you see as the major advantages and disadvantages of working with a small press?
Well, the major disadvantage is money. Small presses don’t have much of it, so authors can’t expect any significant gob of cash up front. But, on the positive side, many small presses provide better royalty rates than the mainstream publishers, and if your book sells you can do OK. Small presses also typically don’t have much in their budgets for promoting writers either. An author really has to push their own work, but I think that’s become more common at the mainstream presses as well. Unless you’re a huge name.
An advantage of the small press is that the author can often have more input into covers and back cover copy than typical of mainstream publishers. And with many small press publishers the relationship between author and publisher becomes quite personal. I’ve very much appreciated the personal attention I’ve gotten from Borgo Press, and from The Invisible College Press before that.
In Swords of Talera, as in many fantasies, an ordinary person suddenly finds him- or herself in extraordinary circumstances in which the normal rules of life do not apply, and the person must become heroic to survive. Hundreds of thousands of us in southeastern Louisiana experienced just such an adventure after Hurricane Katrina. What heroic qualities did you discover in yourself after the hurricane? Did you rewrite any sections of Swords of Talera to reflect your new first-hand knowledge?
Swords of Talera was first written long before Katrina. But it was revised for paperback publication after Katrina. You’re absolutely right that many of us here along the Gulf Coast experienced the kind of dislocation after the hurricane that Ruenn Maclang did in Swords of Talera. Although I didn’t create any new scenes for the book solely based on my experiences during and after Katrina, I think that living through the tragedy of the storm added new depth to many of the revised scenes. I ended up spending two months in Austin, in a two-room apartment with lawn chairs for furniture, so I began to understand the dislocation that Ruenn suffers in the book. That certainly came through in the revisions.
I was amazed at the heroics shown by so many all along the Gulf Coast after Katrina, and the heroics of those who came from all over the country and from Canada and other countries to pitch in. I don’t know if I discovered any heroism in myself, but I saw and met many heroes in action and that certainly bled through onto the pages of the book.
You appear briefly in Swords of Talera as yourself. Was it difficult to create a character who was stripped down from flesh and blood and soul rather than built up from a skeleton? How did you go about turning yourself into a character?
There is a long tradition in Sword and Planet fiction, beginning with Edgar Rice Burroughs, of framing these stories with a connection to a real person who is being “told” the story or who has been given a “manuscript” or “tapes” that reveal the tale. I think it’s a fun tradition and wanted to honor it myself. I appear strictly in the introduction, however, and show up less and less throughout the introductions in the sequels. I have no plans to have myself transported to Talera, which is what the writer Lin Carter once did in one of his own Sword & Planet series.
As for it being hard, it was actually very easy, one of the easiest things I did in the book. There wasn’t really much “making it up” involved. I’ve been called a “character” anyway, usually with some pejorative adjective for a modifier.
Swords of Talera is an old-fashioned read, modeled after the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs and originally appearing in a magazine in serialized form. What do the Talera Cycle and Burroughs’ books offer readers that is missing in modern fiction?
Writers like Burroughs and Robert E. Howard knew that “story” is of paramount importance. Certainly you want great characters and interesting plots, but most people read for the story. Sometimes I think that many modern writers have forgotten that. They’ve become too self-conscious, or have been too heavily influenced by the slash-and-burn techniques of TV, and they’ve forgotten how much fun a “well-told tale” can be. Burroughs and Howard often had plenty going on under the skins of their stories, but they never forgot that a piece has to work as a “story” first.
One big publisher rejected Swords of Talera because they said it was too old-fashioned, but I took that rejection as a compliment because that was exactly what I hoped to achieve with this book. There’s still a lot of flesh on the bones of those old tales. To reject them because they’re not “the latest thing” is to follow a fad that will disappear itself before long.
The theme of freedom is an important one in Swords of Talera. Slaves constantly look for a means of escape, and complete strangers risk their lives to free slaves. Why did you choose this theme to be so prominent? Will later members of the trilogy have different themes?
Slavery has a long and complicated history in human affairs. Outside of murder, it’s arguably the worst thing one human can do to another. Slavery has touched almost every human society, past and present, and the legacy of slavery is still affecting our country’s history today. Growing up in the South, and teaching for the last 20 years at a predominantly African American university, has taught me a lot about the horrors that existed with slavery, and it is a topic that I’m interested in even though I find it difficult to understand how anyone could ever practice it.
As Ruenn Maclang says in the book, however, “chains are not always made of metal.” Actual slavery appears more prominently in Swords of Talera than in either of the sequels, but the whole trilogy is about freedom and about how we must be vigilant against those who would take it away from us, whether it be from outside our society, or from within.
The relationship between the protagonist, Ruenn, and the alien Jask is fascinating. What in the character of these two enemies allows them to forge a friendship and trust each other?
Jask and Ruenn may literally be from different worlds, but they have two things in common that made it inevitable that they’d come to like and respect each other. First, they each have a strong sense of personal honor, a sense that one pays one’s debts. Second, they both understood what it was like to be isolated and alone among their fellows.
Jask really wrote himself as a character and I enjoyed watching his growth very much. If I continue with the Taleran series he will certainly show up again.
How does being a psychologist influence how you create characters?
Long before I was a psychologist I was reading Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series and the stories of a hundred other writers of adventure fantasy, like Robert E. Howard, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, and Kenneth Bulmer. The characters in the Talera books owe much more to the great writers who came before me than they do to my formal training in psychology. While I consciously work psychological elements into the characters and plots of my horror fiction, as with Cold in the Light, I made no attempt to do so in the Talera trilogy. We’re all a product of our experiences and training, of course, so there may be psychological elements to the stories that I don’t even recognize myself. If so, they’re largely accidents.
Thank you again for allowing me to interview you.
My pleasure. Great questions. They really made me think.
You can purchase Swords of Talera and Wings over Talera at Amazon.com. Charles Allen Gramlich maintains a blog about writing, Razored Zen, at http://charlesgramlich.blogspot. com/.
23 May 2007
The best thing about my book discussion group is that everyone has different tastes, so I’m forced to read out of my comfort zone.
The worst thing about my book discussion group is that everyone has different tastes, so I’m forced to read out of my comfort zone.
Left to my own devices, I would consume a steady diet of fantasy, science fiction, historical mysteries, mainstream historical fiction, and history, leavened with an occasional romance novel—not the most balanced fare. A writer should expose herself to a wide variety of authors and subjects.
Belonging to a monthly book discussion group has broadened my intake considerably. I’ve read some classics that I had never got around to, such as John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, and some literary award winners, such as Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.
Some books I enjoyed I never, ever would have picked up if my book group hadn’t chosen them, such as the novel The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty (A loser rides a bike across America—Didn’t sound the least promising) and the memoir Mississippi Solo: A River Quest by Eddy Harris (A guy takes a torturous canoe trip down the Mississippi—Life contains enough unavoidable pain, thank you; why read about someone who inflicts it upon himself?).
My life is so busy that I have trouble finding time for non-work-related reading. But the book club assignment is something I have to get done by the meeting date . . . so I have no guilt about bumping straightening up my office or weeding the garden to make time in my schedule to read the book group selection.
Last but not least, what a pleasure and a luxury to spend time discussing a book with people who love reading as much as I do! The book group has been a good source of friends.
Of course, there’s always a down side. When one enjoys something, one wants to share it with friends. I’ve been frustrated that I’ve had limited success getting my group to try speculative fiction and historical fiction and sad that most members have not enjoyed what little we have read.
Every so often, we read a book that I hate. I spend those months regretting the time wasted and wishing I could have spent those hours with one of the delicious books in my to-read piles.
Still, I would recommend a book discussion group to any writer. We can all benefit by reading widely in a variety of genres and styles.
16 May 2007
Thank you for having me, Shauna!
I’ll admit, it has been a wild ride, but it’s a ride I’ve been dreaming of taking for a long time now, so I feel confident in saying I was somewhat prepared when I finally found my agent and signed my first contract. However, I was not prepared for the accelerated time table surrounding my book’s release. I’d always heard that it takes about a year from when you sign the contract to when the book hits bookshelves. I had seven months, which means everything was a bit rushed. I had about three weeks to complete my revisions, which included an overhaul of my secondary storyline, among other major changes. I had not worked so hard since college. But, it was worth it in the end.
The biggest affect my first sale has had on my friends and family is probably that they see my writing as more than just a hobby now. It’s a profession—one I am extremely serious about.
At first, I was against changing Deliver Me to a post-Katrina novel, but I am infinitely happy that my editor convinced me to do so. As she pointed out, it is hard for people to think of New Orleans before the storm. It’s a part of the city’s history. However, my one caveat was that I refused to harp on the devastation. I wanted to show the hope that has risen from the despair brought on by Katrina.
Actually, I believe changing the book to post-Katrina New Orleans gave the characters more depth. It added a new dimension to Monica’s motivation for leaving St. Louis and relocating to New Orleans. I was very pleased with how it made my characters into more caring people.
My goal was to show New Orleans in a positive light, focusing on the rebuilding of the city. Based on the reviews I’ve received, I think I accomplished that goal.
Writing the interaction among the Holmes’s was the easiest, most natural part of my entire writing process. Growing up with a huge extended family helped. When I was younger, most of my grandmother’s ten children, along with all the grandchildren, gathered for Sunday dinner. On holidays, all the same family stories were told, stories we can all recite verbatim. It just came naturally to me based on my own experiences.
Of course! The next book, tentatively titled Release Me, centers around Elijah’s youngest brother, Tobias “Toby” Holmes, and his childhood best friend, Sienna Culpepper. After a serious car accident ends his professional basketball career, Toby decides to try his hand at the music business. As luck would have it, a scout for a new reality TV show shows up at a club where Toby’s newest client is performing and chooses her to star in the show. Sienna Culpepper works as a junior marketing executive at the advertising firm Toby chooses to help turn his client into a star. And, of course, she is put in charge of Toby’s account.
I really enjoyed writing Toby and Sienna’s book. It was great visiting with the characters again from Deliver Me, too.
I’m currently working on the last Holmes novel, the as-yet-untitled story of the eldest Holmes brother, single-father Alexander. Alex is my favorite, so I’m hoping I can do his story justice.
After I finish up Alex’s book, which I hope to do in the next few months, I’m hoping to start a romantic suspense. It’s what I first starting writing years ago, and I still love the genre. However, I also have an idea for another trilogy, this one centered on three girlfriends looking for love. And I’m also preparing to write my first young-adult novel. I’ve been inspired by my little sister, who once hated reading but is now a bona fide bookworm as a result of several YA books I encouraged her to read. I’m looking forward to writing this story.
I’m lucky enough to have a work schedule that lets me devote several hours to writing every day. I write for about two and a half hours in the morning. My usual hangout is a nearby Starbucks. I have my own table and everything.
Many aspiring authors, and many published for that matter, probably have to contend with a full-time job and family commitments, so my writing regimen may not work for them. I know what it’s like to have to find snippets of time here and there, and if that’s all you can afford to do, then by all means, do it. The writing is what’s important. However, if you can structure your day in a way where your writing is an integral part of your schedule, you should. It’s one of those things that, in my opinion, transforms writing from hobby into career.
I have this love/hate relationship with revisions. I have so many stories in my head that when it is time to go back and edit my current WIP, I always feel that I should be working on the next story. However, I know that it is during the revisions that the story truly comes to life. When I revise, I try to take each sentence and make it the absolute best it can be. I try to get into the characters’ minds, into their souls, and really bring out the emotion behind the words. When I actually accomplish this, I love the revision process.
Visit Farrah Rochon’s Website at http://farrahrochon.com/ and her blog at http://farrahrochon.blogspot.com/. Her book
09 May 2007
I’ve found medical writing a soul-satisfying career because of the chance to help other people live longer, healthier lives.
Press releases, tables of contents from medical journals, medical news summaries, and FDA alerts flood my email box every day. I devote a day or two every month to reading them, not only looking for the most important and interesting research advances to write about in my magazine columns but also keeping up to date with what is happening in fast-moving medical fields.
Like a miner panning a stream, I find an occasional gold nugget in that flood of data—useful information about my own medical conditions and those of my family and friends. My own health has benefited as a result.
I never took a coxib for my arthritis because I had read the original studies and seen that the results did not support the hype.
When the FDA recently removed a drug I took from the market, I knew about it before my specialist did.
According to a new study released last month, one of the drugs I take for my arthritis reduces my chance of death by two-thirds. That’s one drug I’ll insist on staying on.
And just this week, I read a press release from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America encouraging people with asthma to ask their doctors what their IgE level is. (IgE is an abbreviation for immunoglobulin E, an antibody whose levels are high in people with allergies.) The organization claimed that it’s just as important for people with asthma to know their IgE level as it is for people with diabetes to know their HbA1c or for a person with high blood pressure to know their blood pressure. You can be sure I’ll take that press release to my next asthma check-up to discuss whether this test would be useful in my case.
How ironic that one of the greatest beneficiaries of my “altruistic” career is myself.