Since I enjoyed Bradley P. Beaulieu's The Winds of Khalakovo (Canada, USA, Europe) and named it the fantasy debut of the year in 2011, I knew I'd have to interview him at some point.
Here's the blurb for The Winds of Khalakovo:
Among inhospitable and unforgiving seas stands Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands, its prominent eyrie stretching a thousand feet into the sky. Serviced by windships bearing goods and dignitaries, Khalakovo's eyrie stands at the crossroads of world trade. But all is not well in Khalakovo. Conflict has erupted between the ruling Landed, the indigenous Aramahn, and the fanatical Maharraht, and a wasting disease has grown rampant over the past decade. Now, Khalakovo is to play host to the Nine Dukes, a meeting which will weigh heavily upon Khalakovo's future.
When an elemental spirit attacks an incoming windship, murdering the Grand Duke and his retinue, Prince Nikandr, heir to the scepter of Khalakovo, is tasked with finding the child prodigy believed to be behind the summoning. However, Nikandr discovers that the boy is an autistic savant who may hold the key to lifting the blight that has been sweeping the islands. Can the Dukes, thirsty for revenge, be held at bay? Can Khalakovo be saved? The elusive answer drifts upon the Winds of Khalakovo...
And here's the book trailer:
And with Beaulieu's The Straits of Galahesh (Canada, USA, Europe) being released next month, that time was now!
Here's the blurb for The Straits of Galahesh:
West of the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya lies the Empire of Yrstanla, the Motherland. The Empire has lived at peace with Anuskaya for generations, but with political turmoil brewing and the wasting disease still rampant, opportunists from the mainland have begun to set their sights on the Grand Duchy, seeking to expand their empire. Five years have passed since Prince Nikandr, heir to the scepter of Khalakovo, was tasked with finding Nasim, the child prodigy behind a deadly summoning that led to a grand clash between the armies of man and elder elemental spirits. Today, that boy has grown into a young man driven to understand his past - and the darkness from which Nikandr awakened him. Nikandr's lover, Atiana, has become a Matra, casting her spirit forth to explore, influence, and protect the Grand Duchy. But when the Al-Aqim, long thought lost to the past, return to the islands and threaten to bring about indaraqiram - a change that means certain destruction for both the Landed and the Landless - bitter enemies must become allies and stand against their horrific plans. From Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of the critically acclaimed debut novel The Winds of Khalakovo, comes Book Two of The Lays of Anuskaya, The Straits of Galahesh.
- What's the 411 on Bradley P. Beaulieu? Tell us a bit about your background?
I'm a Wisconsin boy, born and raised. I grew up in mostly medium-small towns. My grade school, which had a profound effect on my reading tastes and my eventual writing career, was a little red-brick schoolhouse that was later torn down to build condos near Lake Michigan. I still get sad every time I drive by them. But while I was there, my best friend introduced me to The Hobbit. I scarfed that down and quickly moved on to The Lord of the Rings. I was transported so completely while reading those books, I was so enchanted, that I've hardly read anything but fantasy since. I dabble from time to time, of course—a thriller here, a mystery there, some non-fiction now and again—but by and large, I love reading (and now writing) fantasy.
I went to college at the Milwaukee School of Engineering for Computer Science, and that was where I first dabbled with writing. I wrote maybe six chapters of a very stereotypical adventure fantasy, but it was a beginning. I got enough good feedback that it made me want to try it more, but it wasn't until ten years or so later that I started getting serious about it. I dedicated myself to learning how to write and to getting that first novel finished and to writing and submitting short stories. Learning the craft was a slog in many ways, and it was emotionally difficult—try suffering through dozens of rejections on stories you've put your heart and soul into and you'll know what I mean—but I've tried very hard to enjoy even the rejections along the way, because those meant that I was in the game, that I was progressing.
Eventually I got my break with Night Shade Books, and it's been a wild ride—not even a year—since The Winds of Khalakovo was released. I'm very pleased that the second book in the series, The Straits of Galahesh, is about to hit the shelves.
- Without giving too much away, can you give us a taste of the tale that is THE WINDS OF KHALAKOVO?
My favorite quote for the book is from friend and fellow writer, Gregory A. Wilson:
If Anton Chekhov had thought to stage The Three Sisters onboard a windship, with a mix of Arabian Nights and Minority Report thrown in for good measure, the result would have been Bradley Beaulieu’s The Winds of Khalakovo.
Others have called Winds a "cyrillic fantasy" or a "flintlock fantasy." All of these approximate The Winds of Khalakovo, but I think I would sum it up like this: Winds is a story about a boy who has the power to break worlds, and it's the ways in which people want to use him—some to heal and some to harm—that plays out within its pages.
- How well-received has THE WINDS OF KHALAKOVO been thus far?
Winds has been very well received critically. I've been very pleased with the reviews and responses to the book so far. I think the most common praise that it's been getting is that it brings something fresh to the epic fantasy field, and I'm very proud of that. I fully admit that it doesn't tear down the walls and build the genre anew, but I do think it brings a fresh take to a somewhat worn field.
- Can you tell us a little more about the road that saw this one go from manuscript form to finished novel?
I'd had over a dozen short stories to my name by the time I was ready to pitch Winds. I'd also made inroads to various editors and publishing houses by going to various writing conferences and conventions. Anyone who tells you that you can get by without networking is lying. Sure, you still hear stories about break-out authors and novels that burst onto the field fully formed. But I think by and large you'll find that the people breaking into fiction today worked hard to do it, and made a lot of friends along the way, not just editors and agents, but other authors as well. This is a small field, and it's important to "be known" so that you and your work can get notice. It's not the entirety of the game, mind you. You still have to know your chops. Your work still has to stand on its own. But to get the chance of being read, of being considered, it often takes some kind of personal connection.
So while I new that many editors won't take unagented manuscripts, I didn't yet have an agent, but I'd already become comfortable with approaching editors to talk to them about my books. I did so with Jeremy Lassen while attending World Fantasy in San Jose back in 2009. I gave him my pitch, which was basically "Song of Ice and Fire meets Earthsea," and Jeremy asked if I had an agent. I said no, figuring that would be the end of the conversation, but Jeremy liked the pitch enough that he said to go ahead and send it his way. The offer came in a few months later, March of 2010, as I recall. I still didn't have an agent, but I somehow managed to convince Russ Galen that I was a writer worth taking a shot on. We signed the deal soon after, and then it was on to the Long Wait before the book was eventually published in April 2011.
- How would you describe your work to someone who hadn’t tried your books before?
Well, first and foremost, my home for novel length work is epic fantasy. That's what I've always loved to read, and I love writing it as well.
My hope is to bring a world and a story that is rich and gripping and real. I want the scope to be vast and the experience to be wondrous. I want things to matter. I want the heroes and those who stand against them to have true and ardent beliefs, because it is there, in that place where the characters oppose one another through real and human beliefs, that the story lies. These things drive me to write, and I hope it comes through in my writing.
- The sequel, THE STRAITS OF GALAHESH, is about to be released. What can you tell readers about it?
In The Winds of Khalakovo we were introduced to Ghayavand, the island where the sundering occurred three hundred years ago. We also leared that Nasim was reborn when Khamal, one of the three extremely powerful qiram who cause the sundering, was murdered. And there are hints of the looming threat from the Empire of Yrstanla to the west of the Grand Duchy, an empire that once laid claim to the islands of Anuskaya.
The Straits of Galahesh starts five years after the events shown in Winds. The book focuses on three main characters—Nikandr, Atiana, and Nasim—who take us on a journey that expands well beyond the boundaries of the Grand Duchy to explore the origin and growing effects of the rifts. Nasim is older now, and we learn more of his prior life as Khamal as he tries to close the rifts that were opened so many years ago. Yrstanla has once again set its sights on the islands they once ruled. Atiana becomes deeply involved in a plot that unfolds on the island of Galahesh, where the fabled straits lie, while Nikandr uncovers a different plot entirely, one that affects the Maharraht, the hated enemies of the Grand Duchy.
- What can readers expect from the upcoming sequels? Any tentative titles and release dates?
In the third and final book of the series, The Flames of Shadam Khoreh, we delve even deeper into the history behind the sundering and the fateful ritual that occurred so many years ago. This is crucial for our heroes because the rifts have continued to grow and strengthen, and it's clear that if they aren't closed once and for all, the very world of Erahm itself is at risk. The heroes travel to a far desert in the south of the Empire of Yrstanla, and there in the valley of Shadam Khoreh they hope to find the final clues they need to heal the rifts, but with Yrstanla embroiled in a war for the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya, returning to the island of Ghayavand, much less closing the rifts, is looking more and more difficult.
The Flames of Shadam Khoreh is set to release in April of 2013.
- Will you be touring during the course of the winter/spring to promote THE STRAITS OF GALAHESH? If so, are there any specific dates that have been confirmed as of yet?
I will have a small book tour around my home in the Midwest United States. The launch event is at Boswell Books in Milwaukee, WI on the 7th of April, 2-3pm. I hope to have other signings in Racine, Milwaukee, and Madison, WI, and Chicago, IL, but those dates are yet to be confirmed. I'll certainly put updates on my website, though, so anyone interested can keep an eye out there.
- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write The Lays of Anuskaya series in the first place?
When I first started working on the world, it was the magic—the use of the elements—that came first. I had originally thought of having various tribes, people that specialized in each of the elemental forms (fire, earth, water, air, and life), but as I the world started to complicate, I pretty much threw out the idea of separate tribes, but I kept the elemental magic itself.
The world itself came next. I knew that I wanted to set the story on islands, and from there I stumbled across the notion of using Muscovite Russia and the Grand Duchy of Moscow as a "leaping off" point for the culture. The question then naturally arose: how did they conduct trade? How did they move from place to place? I wanted to make this an inhospitable world, one in which it was difficult to carve out a place where life and culture could be sustained, and in order to do this, I reckoned that sea travel would be challenging for these people. The islands are protected by reefs, and so travel by sea is possible within each of the archipelagos, but beyond this, ships could easily be lost.
This was where the flying ships came in. I thought that maybe travel by air would actually be more dependable than sea travel. But this could only be true if they had some way to control it reliably. And this, by and large, is where the Aramahn came into being. I brought back the idea of the tribes, but recast them in such a way that they could control the elements, but not the people of the Grand Duchy. And so a strange compact was made between these two peoples: the Aramahn would provide their abilities to control these ships, and the Grand Duchy would give free access to the islands to the Aramahn, who roam the world and meditate and strive to attain enlightenment.
It was at this point, when the windships came into the picture, that the world of Winds really coalesced for me and I knew I had something cool on my hands. And from there it was just a matter of trying to live up to that promise.
- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
I spend a lot of time on worldbuilding. I like to think that I create a world that is both interesting and internally consistent. I like for it to feel like it lives beyond the pages. I also try to focus closely on keeping the reader interested, keeping the story moving. My personal writing mantra is "tension on every page." It's difficult to reach our ideals, but I do try consciously while writing to keep the plot moving, keep things leaning against the heroes, but not in such a way that it feels unbalanced or hectic. So much of writing is finding balance, so I try to leaven the action with tender or emotional moments, but even then I try to maintain focus on the weight of events that these characters are dealing with.
- By the same token, what would be your weaknesses, or aspects of your craft you feel you need to work on?
I've long known that I'm a plot-driven writer. I rather think it's because I wasn't an extremely avid reader as I grew up and moved into college. I read, certainly, but I also loved movies, and I think this is why I'm more plot-driven than character-driven. I came at writing from a more cinematic perspective than others. So while it's a weakness, I do try hard to temper my inclinations to make sure the decisions being made and the emotions playing out are consistent with the characters.
- You have been a prolific short fiction writer these last few years. Do you have a different approach when you write short stories and novel-length projects?
Well, I'd say that there's a ton of overlap between the two. In world building, character building, the mechanics of the writing; all those things hardly differ between the two mediums. But the scope of the story is certainly different. My natural tendency is to think big, which does not (as you may have guessed) lend itself to short stories. So that's the first major difference. But beyond this there are simple techniques that are essential to the short story writer. Starting scenes later than I normally would, ending them sooner, using subtext more: these are the tricks of the trade for the short story writer. I won't say that I've mastered the art—I think it's quite challenging to craft a satisfying short story—but I continue to work those muscles, and at times borrow them while writing my novels.
- There are a number of different perspectives as to the function secondary-world or epic fantasy carries out for readers. Le Guin once wrote that such fantasy deepened and intensified the mysteries of life, while R. Scott Bakker has put forward that humanity is neurologically ill-equipped for a modern, rationalist world and this leads some to seek access to a pre-modern worldview (or the fiction of one) where reality conforms to the mind's irrational, evolutionarily hardwired expectations. Others have denigrated it as mere escapism, an alternative opiate for the masses.
What is your view as to fantasy's function?
At a recent convention, this subject came up, although in an oblique manner. The panel topic was on medieval fantasy—kings and queens and castles—and why this particular flavor of fantasy—especially those told in pseudo Western European settings—has dominated the field since The Lord of the Rings. But eventually we started talking about why this kind of fantasy even exists, and I think one of the reasons is a certain type of escapism. I don't think it's as simple as people wanting to escape as it is wanting to have some agency in the world around them. What do these stories tend to focus on? Kings and queens, yes, but also knights and magi, assassins and thieves. Whatever their station in life, the stories that are told are about people who have power of one kind or another. Royalty have the ability to control their world with but a word, knights by the strength of their sword, assassins by their keen blades. I think in today's world, one in which we feel more and more powerless, I think the allure of slipping into a world in which you, the reader, become these powerful characters, is strong indeed.
I think another primary purpose is to examine certain aspects of our modern day lives in different setting entirely. This removal, this abstraction, allows us to view conflict through a lens unencumbered by our modern biases and prejudices. Now, I say this and I know it's an ideal. We cannot remove ourselves completely from our world, even while reading. We our creatures of our time and place, of our upbringing, and so we will naturally view "story" through our own internal lenses and not merely those presented in the story itself. Still, I think this can be a terribly useful thing for us to do, to expand upon or deconstruct our modern dialogue in another fashion that might help to foster a new understanding.
That said, I'm very careful not to become didactic in my writing. There are clear parallels in The Winds of Khalakovo and the tension in the middle-east. Themes of terrorism and colonialism and exceptionalism come up in the tale, but it is not a story about our world. It is a story in and of itself, separate from us. Or at least, that was my intent. Whether it speaks in any way to what we as a people are dealing with today, I leave to the reader.
- Were there any perceived conventions of the fantasy genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write THE WINDS OF KHALAKOVO and its sequels?
I certainly wanted to break away from the Western European motif in epic fantasy. I'm always mindful of being derivative, so I wanted to find something that was new to me, that would challenge me as a writer and hopefully provide something fresh to the reader. I stumbled across the Russian flavor in the novel mostly by accident, by just running different Earth parallels through to their natural conclusion in my world, but once I had stumbled across it, I really liked it. I'm really picky about names, and once I started playing around with the names of the duchies (like Khalakovo) and the characters (like Nikandr and Atiana), the idea stuck, and then it was a matter of researching and filling out the world to make it feel real.
I also wanted to avoid the grand evil that shows up in so many fantasies. I adore Tolkien, but I don't know that I'll ever write a book with a supreme evil in it. Perhaps I will someday just to break out of my own mold, but for the time being, I really like gray stories about real people with desperate and deeply personal struggles. And I also subscribe to the notion that every character is a hero in their own story, and so I didn't want my villains to be of the moustache-twirling variety. I wanted them to believe ardently in their own cause, and in such a way that made sense to the reader, and even to (some of) the characters in the novel that opposed them.
- Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the cover that graces your book?
I've long since known that I would have very little input on the cover art for my novels. I'm also fully aware that a cover is a representation of the novel. An abstraction with one purpose: to sell the novel to its core audience. So I was well prepared when the art for the books were being developed. That being said, I've been fortunate to have some input. I tried to prepare the artists as well as I could, but beyond the offer of help, and providing it when asked, I stayed out. That's not my job. The art director at Night Shade and the artists know what they're doing.
My particular case is rather interesting, though. I have two covers that are vastly different from one another. The Winds of Khalakovo has this brilliant landscape scene full of earthy colors and a stunning realization of the windships in the novel. It's very atmospheric and gives a good sense of the tone of the book—grand and dark and ominous. The Straits of Galahesh, on the other hand, has a much more character-oriented cover. It's very dynamic and gives a sense of the action and adventure. This is where art directors earn their money. Both covers reflect what's inside the covers, but one or the other will win out in the marketplace. Which one? That remains to be seen. Check back with me in about nine months...
- The fact that there is a website dedicated to your work is an indication that interaction with your readers is important to you as an author. How special is it to have the chance to interact directly with potential readers and soon-to-be fans?
Certainly the primary purpose of my site is to spread the word about my books. But I absolutely want to hear from my readership. I really like hearing the great feedback I've received so far. It's one of the things you dream about as a wannabe writer, hearing from fans who get your work. You run the risk, of course, of hearing some things you might not want to hear, but that's a risk I'll take any day. The chance to interact with people about your work is one of the most gratifying things about this business, probably the most gratifying.
- What authors make you shake your head in admiration? Many speculative fiction authors don't read much inside the genre. Is it the case with you?
I've heard that a lot as well, that many don't read within the genre, but I'm almost the exact opposite. I hardly read outside the genre. It's something I have to watch. I push myself to read outside the genre so that I continue to feel fresh. I feed my mind, so to speak, by reading other genres like thrillers and mysteries and nonfiction.
Writers that have my shaking my head? Guy Gavriel Kay is certainly one. I love the way he marries poetry and prose. A relative newcomer is Rob Ziegler, who just last November released his debut novel, Seed. Seed was a powerful and ruthless tale, but within it are turns of phrase that had me laughing at how good they were. I was recently introduced to Laird Barron's work, and he's another where I fall wholly into the tale, giving the darkness of his voice a chance to encroach until it has me tightly in its grasp. Some others I adore are Tim Powers, Michael Swanwick, and Kelly Link.
- You have mentioned that several genre authors have influenced you. You say that the ones that have had the most effect on your own writing are C. S. Friedman, Guy Gavriel Kay, Glen Cook, and George R. R. Martin What aspects of their own style have you tried to emulate in your own works of fiction?
I love George Martin for the depth and breadth of his world. His world doesn't have quite the feeling of antiquity of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, but it's every bit as wide and every bit as deep. And I love that he's able to, in a very short amount of time, make you care about any character he chooses to write about. He's a master of reader sympathy, even when the characters he's writing about aren't all that sympathetic.
I love Guy Gavriel Kay for his lyrical prose and the romanticism he brings to his tales. His stories remind me of the paintings of pre-Raphaelite masters, their lush colors and majestic subjects. I try to achieve the same overall effect in my novels. Often I'll visualize scenes in just that sort of manner to help me focus on the effect I'm looking for.
I love Glen Cook for his gritty, in-the-trenches realism. While I strive for a romantic telling, there are times to set that aside and drag the reader down into the mud and guts and blood. That's what I take from Cook, the feral, hindbrain nature of war when the fighting actually comes.
And I love C.S. Friedman for her relentless, serious, dark tone. I will admit that I could use more humor in my books, but I think there's something to be said about a ruthless sort of oppression. It makes you feel that much more for the characters when the way ahead is so bleak, especially when the characters are as human as Friedman portrays them.
- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy/Hugo Award? Why, exactly?
I had this conversation at a convention recently with other author, and I'll give the same answer I gave then. I'll take the NY Times Bestseller. Why? Because in the end I'm looking to share my stories with as wide an audience as I can. There are a ton (a ton!) of great, powerful books that never get award recognition. I'll admit as well that I don't think my books (at least the ones I'm writing and plan to write in the near future) lend themselves to award season. Don't get me wrong. I'm very proud of them, and I do think they bring something fresh to the field, but the awards tend to reward those books that really push boundaries, break trends, or revive trends long-since thought dead. I'm not writing that kind of fiction—at least not at this point in my career—so I'd be well pleased indeed to someday open up an email that tells me I've hit the NY Times.
- More and more, authors/editors/publicists/agents are discovering the potential of all the SFF blogs/websites/message boards on the internet. Do you keep an eye on what's being discussed out there, especially if it concerns you? Or is it too much of a distraction?
I do keep an eye on what's going on. First of all, you and other bloggers read a lot of material. I think you have pretty informed opinions, so it's one way to get a gauge on how my books are being received. It's also, as you say, the way things are headed. People are spending more time on the internet, replacing entertainment and information gathering from other, more traditional sources with online sources, so I like to keep my finger on that pulse, so to speak. I'll admit that there's a bit of fascination to it as well. It's kind of fascinating watching the banter between bloggers as they talk about this or that book. Plus, it's fun to watch the fireworks when there's a differing of opinions.
All that said, I try not to invest myself too heavily in outside opinions. I do want to know how people are receiving my books, but on the other hand, you have to temper it by keeping some distance. Otherwise you become a slave not to your own, inner artistic voice, but your audience, and in that way lies ruin. You have to stay true to your artistic self. So while I try to internalize those things that are worth listening to, I also work hard to shut those voices down and return to the place that made me want to write about this particular world when I sit down at the keyboard. In other words, when I write I try to fall into the world, leaving our world completely behind. It's an ideal that can never be fully realized, but I think it's wise to try when you're actively working on the story.
- Anything else you wish to share with us?
Two quick plugs. I run a podcast with fellow author Greg Wilson called Speculate! It's a podcast for writers, readers, and fans. We have a variety of shows, including reviews of speculative fiction, interviews with authors, and discussions of writing technique. You can check us out at www.speculatesf.com.
I also recently wrote a sci-fi novella with Stephen Gaskell called Strata. We've been getting a lot of wonderful press from reviewers, and we hope those who like a good dystopian science fiction thriller from time to time will give it a look.
And a quick thank you to Pat. Thanks for having me by for such an in-depth interview. It was a lot of fun.