S. L. Farrell interview

After reading S. L. Farrell's A Magic of Twilight (Canada, USA, Europe), I thought that a Q&A with the author was in order. Farrell was more than happy to oblige, so here we go!

I'm curious to see what SFF fans will think of the novel. George R. R. Martin's recommendations for Daniel Abraham's A Shadow in Summer and Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora helped give those writers some exposure, so it will be interesting to see what readers will make of Farrell's A Magic of Twilight.


- You first made a name for yourself in the fantasy genre with the publication of The Cloudmages trilogy. What can you tell us about that Celtic fantasy series?

It began because I took a trip to Ireland with some of my family to visit relatives and do some sightseeing... and I felt instantly "at home." I occasionally do watercolors and sketches, mostly landscapes that are from some imaginary, ancient, and distinctly un-modern place inside my head. During that trip, my sister and I climbed one of the mountains in the Connemara area, and as I looked back over the landscape -- the steep green hills, the coastline, the cottages -- I realized with a start that this was a portion of the same landscape that I'd been drawing all those years. Heck, in Clifden I half-seriously started looking at how much houses cost...

I knew I wanted to write something set here, in the Ireland that might once have been, in that old landscape in my head. I knew it had to be a fantasy, even though the great majority of what I'd written in the past was science fiction.

That was the genesis of HOLDER OF LIGHTNING.

I also noticed that the Irish (my relatives no less than any others) were great ones for telling you about the magic of the land, even if that magic was gone. They would tell you about ghosts and supernatural visitations and historic events that happened ages before on this very spot. You couldn't help but feel how old and haunted this land was. That was the feeling I wanted in the first CLOUDMAGES book, that here was a land that once had been imbued with magic but it was so long gone that it was only a memory and old tales and myths.

I wanted to bring that magic back. I wanted that old, haunted world to awaken again...

I do love the Cloudmages books. I love that world and love the way magic cycles in and out in great, slow waves through its history. At one point, I actually sketched out a sequence of twelve books -- six taking place after the Cloudmages series, and three prequels. I wanted to follow the ebb and flow of magic through a full cycle: Nadir, Rising (which was the Cloudmages Trilogy), Zenith, and Falling. Maybe one day I'll go back to that -- but as much as I love the Cloudmages book and that world, I felt after three books I needed to try something different.

- Without giving anything away, what can you tell potential readers about A Magic of Twilight? For instance, what inspired you to use a Renaissance Europe era as the backdrop for The Nessantico Cycle?

I've always been fascinated by those times that represent a paradigm shift in perception -- that fascination is also part of the Cloudmages series. Another such time was when scientific, rational and logical explanations for the way the world works began to supersede explanations based on superstition or religion or myth -- that began as we emerged from the Medieval period, but heck, to some extent, we're still undergoing that change even now. I wondered what that shift might feel like in a world where magic really works -- but where magic use was tied up in the religious belief structure.

Now, I enjoy reading history books -- because I find that, for me, they spark more ideas than anything else I can read. I was, around the same time I was musing on the above thought, also reading THE HOUSE OF MEDICI: Its Rise And Fall by Christopher Hibbert -- it's an old book (1974 original publication, I think) but nonetheless fascinating -- my copy is stuffed with dozens of yellow post-it notes marking passages I found interesting. That book started me thinking about families and power and generational struggles, and also started me looking more into that period. I started reading more on the Renaissance -- you want the whole list? It's on the Acknowledgments page of A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT -- and started putting together the world of Nessantico. Nessantico herself as a city is part Venice, part Florence, part Paris, part Vienna: a hybrid, just as the Concénzia Faith in the book is a hybrid of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and Islam in the way it's structured (though its mythology is pretty much whole cloth).

I wanted a world where not only was the religious structure under assault, but so was the political structure. In the book, you have the empire that Nessantico rules beginning to crack and crumble even as it seems to be at its height, as well as the state faith under a similar pressure from the Numetodo heretics (who are intent on proving that one can do magic without recourse to gods). And you see this from the perspectives of people on all sides of the conflicts, and from all levels within that society. That's A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT.

- What can we expect from the upcoming sequels?

There will be a few decades between the books -- in the world of Nessantico (he hastens to say), not here... Honest -- the books are intended to come out on a nice yearly basis. Ahem. The time-gap means that you can expect that many of the main players on the stage in the first book will have shuffled off or be taking far more minor roles in the second book while new major characters will arise. Hopefully, that way the books will all be able to stand alone relatively well. Someone who has read TWILIGHT will be able to see deeper into the threads of A MAGIC OF NIGHTFALL, but a reader new to the second book will still find a satisfying story that begins and ends in the same book. The same with A MAGIC OF DAWN, which right now is intended to wrap up the cycle (but hey, you never know...)

Again, it the 'character arc' of the city which will move through the entire sequence: from a height to the beginning of its decline; from its decline to its nadir; from its nadir to the beginnings of its resurrection.

- What's the progress report pertaining to A Magic of Nightfall? Any tentative release date?

The initial draft of NIGHTFALL is nearly done. Given the way I write, my 'first' drafts are actually a hodgepodge of anything from second to fourth draft material. I always go back over what I've written the day before and revise it before I start writing new material -- that's the 'warm-up' exercise so that when I hit that horrible blank part of the screen I'll have the momentum to keep going. At the same time, during any writing session I might be working on a scene or a character movement and realize that what I'm doing here demands a change back there to foreshadow it or correctly set it up, and I won't be able to resist going back to the older section and doing that revision.

I should finish this initial draft in the next few weeks (as I write this in mid-March of 2008). I have, oh, maybe three single-spaced pages of notes I've been creating as I went along for revision -- stuff I didn't feel like going back to address as I was writing but that I didn't want to forget in the meantime. So once the complete initial draft is done, I'll go back over the manuscript from the beginning, keeping those notes in front of me and revising the whole thing, paying particular attention to narrative flow and continuity. When that's finished (usually two weeks to a month later), it'll go to Sheila at DAW (and a couple first readers). There will (inevitably) be yet another round of revision when Sheila's read it and given me her comments on the novel....

Right now, the novel is slotted to be released in March, 2009 and we're still on schedule for that -- it generally takes nearly a year for a book to go through the publication cycle at the major publishers.

- A Magic of Twilight features 10 main POV characters. Having this many points of view can put off some readers, even in the presence of a great novel. A case in point in that regard would be Ian McDonald's Hugo-nominated River of Gods. What made you decide that you needed to look at this tale from so many disparate angles?

I like asking the reader to work a little, too. :-)

Seriously, as a writer, any time you move away from simplicity to complexity, you risk losing some readers. The more ornate and dense your prose, the harder the reader has to work; the more elaborate and 'twisty' your plot, the harder the reader has to work; the more characters you place in the literary spotlight, the harder the reader has to work. Every time you as a writer move away from a 'chapter' structure, third person, past tense, limited single-person POV, and accessible simple prose, you're 'bending the rules' and thus you risk losing some readers.

But I also think that, as a writer, you also have to tell the story in the way that seems best for the story you're telling. And sometimes, when the reader works a little harder, they also find that they're rewarded with a deeper, more complex, and richer tale.

In the first Cloudmages book, HOLDER OF LIGHTNING, the structure is straightforward and breaks no rules (except that perhaps I make the reader work a bit with the Gaelic terms and names): I have one protagonist, Jenna, who is also the point of view character in every scene (without fail, I think, though I'd have to go back and look to be certain). The book didn't need to be more complex than that, and to try to make it more complex for the sake of complexity would have been doing the tale a disservice. In the second book, MAGES OF CLOUDS, there is still one primary protagonist/viewpoint character, Jenna's daughter Meriel, though for the purpose of best telling that story, I had to occasionally move away from her viewpoint to show something important happening somewhere else. In HEIR OF STONE, the concluding volume, there are three protagonists (the children of Meriel) who also function as viewpoint characters -- their individual stories are for the most part geographically separated until the very end of the book, so there's a bit of hopping around for the reader... because to tell the story effectively, I had no choice.

In the NESSANTICO CYCLE (which will be A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT, A MAGIC OF NIGHTFALL, and A MAGIC OF DAWN), to my mind the main 'protagonist' is the city of Nessantico herself.

I wanted the reader to feel the complexity of this world, to glimpse the various agendas and ambitions of all the movers and shakers of this place. To do that, it seemed best to me to use a large cast of characters and to let them each step forward now and again to tell the reader the story from their point of view, in their voice. I don't think I could have done justice to Nessantico with Ana alone (for instance), even though she gets the most stage-time. For the most part, this novel is Ana's story, but it's also Allesandra's and Sergei's and Dhosti's and Mahri's and Justi's and Karl's, and... Ana simply isn't able to be everywhere to tell a story this complex and this geographically and socially diverse, so I went to an 'ensemble' feel for the book (and will continue that structure in the other books).

If I thought I could have used fewer viewpoints and still have displayed the wide scope of the novel, I would have... because it would have been simpler for me and easier for the readers. But it didn't work out that way. I think it worked out better, though...

- Will you be touring during the course of the spring to promote A Magic of Twilight? If so, are there any specific dates that have been confirmed as of yet?

Now if I were a NY Times bestselling author, I surely would be... But for the most part, I've been doing local appearances and signings within driving distance (I live in Cincinnati, OH). I'm also the GoH at Applecon in Minneapolis (April 11 - 13) so if anyone's up that way, I'd love to see them! And I hope to be at Worldcon in Denver during the summer.

- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?

The best person to ask about a writer's strengths are his/her readers. We're all too close to our work to really know. But I can tell you what I concentrate on while I'm writing....

As I tell my students in my Creative Writing classes, fiction is all about characters, so I hope that characterization is one of my strengths. I certainly like characters who are shades of gray, who aren't pure heroes or pure villains but exist somewhere between. I think flawed people are far, far more interesting than perfect ones of either type... and I hope some of that fascination with characters comes out in the books, so that each of the characters feels individual and solid and real.

Worldbuilding is also something I enjoy: putting together a world that feels as genuine as our own, that has a wonderful sense of long history and complexity. Worldbuilding is one of the foundations of speculative fiction. If you're writing in the "here and now," well, you don't have to do a great deal of worldbuilding because your readers understand instinctively the world in which the characters live, and they understand how the characters will interact with that world and respond to each other -- because it's the same world in which they live and and the same natural responses they'd have. None of that's true in speculative fiction, which is part of the kick of reading the genre, I think. Here, we get to create a new history, a new geography, a new set of social reflexes and mores... and all that has to be solid and sound. When it's done well, it's an exciting ride of discovery for 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 Cloudmages? How about The Nessantico Cycle?

I didn't really worry about conventions. Way back when, I read Tolkien and loved the sense of a whole world and long history he brought to his tale, even while I found his prose occasionally awkward and his characters sometimes two-dimensional. I've honestly read little of current fantasy; that may be an asset or a liability -- I'm not sure which. Most of my reading anymore is for research. With the Cloudmages series, I wanted to write about a world awakening to magic again, and because I'd become fascinated with Ireland, it's set in a faux-Ireland. Therefore, to the Marketing folk, by necessity it falls into the Celtic Fantasy sub-genre. Does it break any of the conventions of that genre? I really don't know because I've read almost no Celtic fantasy; you'd have to tell me. As far as I'm concerned, the books simply are what they are.

With the Nessantico Cycle, I'm aware that I'm breaking some conventions (if only structurally), but again I'm not worrying about breaking those conventions. I'm doing so them because the story (in my opinion) demands that I do so. How can I best tell this story I want to tell? That's always the first question a writer should ask: if it requires being conventional, be conventional. If it requires bending or breaking the rules, break them.

Did I do a decent job of it? Again, that's for the readers to decide. :-)

- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a Hugo/World Fantasy Award? Why, exactly?

Heck, there's a nice thought, either way! If I could only choose one, I'd take being a NY Times bestseller, because that indicates the books are selling well and I'm reaching the widest audience. A Hugo or World Fantasy Award would be lovely... but in the end, if one wants to continue a writing career, it comes down to having an audience that you're reaching, the larger the better. As many books have demonstrated, you can win a Hugo or World Fantasy award and not make the NY Times list... but make the NY Times list and I'd say you have a good shot of being on the final ballot for the Hugo.

- How much of an impact does George R. R. Martin's "patronage" benefit you in terms of exposure for a new release like A Magic of Twilight?

I was pleasantly blown away when George made A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT part of the 'bet' he had with you on the Cowboys/Giants game. Since I write for the WILD CARDS series, I'd suggested to Sheila at DAW that she send George an ARC of the book for a possible quote (and he's given us one, which you'll see on the mass market edition), but George has gone the extra mile: with you, as well as mentioning the book in his blog a few times. Given that George has a HUGE and loyal readership, that can only help. George is someone whose writing I admire greatly, and I'm very happy that George liked the book enough that he's recommending it to people.

In the end, though, a book has to stand on its own merits. George might convince a few more people to pick up A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT, but he can't convince them that it's a good read. The book has to do that on its own... and that's what matters.

- 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 covers that grace your books?

Cover art's important -- regardless of that old saying, people do judge books by their covers. The cover exists to induce a potential reader to pick up the book and open it; if it fails in the task (or, in the worst case scenario, actively causes readers to go "Yuck!"), you might as well not have a cover at all. And some covers do that better than others... For HOLDER OF LIGHTNING, I had Gordon Crabb as the cover artist -- I still really love that cover; the look of Jenna, the details... I think it's an excellent cover, myself. For MAGE OF CLOUDS, DAW went with Jim Burns, an artist I've loved for years, though this particular cover of his, honestly, isn't my favorite. It's good, but not great. For HEIR OF STONE, Steve Stone was the artist. I liked that one a lot-- hey, nothing screams "Fantasy!" like a dragon on the cover, and that's a nice one...

For A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT, Sheila commissioned Todd Lockwood to do the cover art. Again, Todd is someone I think is a fabulous artist; he's done stunning work. The three of us talked (well, e-mailed) about the concept for this cover, and there was input from Penguin's marketing department as well. Since Nessantico is the central 'character' in the book, we wanted the architecture to dominate the scene, with the people being much smaller (much as Todd did with the cover for Tad Williams' SHADOWPLAY. I think the design of the painting is excellent, drawing the viewer into the recesses where there are some lovely details to snare you -- the Archigos' throne is incredible. I hope that works at smaller (paperback) size, though...

- 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?

Well, like every writer in the world, I keep a blog on my website (actually, I link to my LiveJournal blog). That keeps me in direct contact with anyone who wants to respond/talk to me. And I do have Google alert me when my name gets mentioned somewhere. All writers have egos -- heck, the very fact of marketing your work is implicitly saying "I think what I have here is something everyone should read. It's that good. Honest." But...

I don't know how many other writers have this issue (but I suspect it's many of us), but while that ego might be big enough enough to cause us to send out our work, it's fragile: if someone says they really like what I've done, I'm pleased and happy and feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It's great. That's what we all want, after all, to please most of the people who read our stuff. But when someone gives one of my books a scathing review... well, I find myself brooding on it. My confidence gets shaken. I stop writing. I start second-guessing myself. I wonder if they're right and I've been fooling myself all along. A nasty review genuinely hurts, even if I think the reviewer is entirely wrong. Yeah, writers are supposed to have steel-clad skins and cast off barbs and bad reviews as if they were no more than a soft spring rain, but that's not the case. Not at all. Not for me, anyway.

So in some ways, the less attention I pay to what's being said about my work in the blogsphere, the better. Mind you, I still look when I come across something. I can't help it. It's like a scab you can't help but pick.

- Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.

I work in academia, and believe me I'm well aware of how the majority of my colleagues view speculative fiction. I touch on the subject in some of the essays on writing on my website: "Prejudice in Academia" is the one that addresses it most directly (http://www.farrellworlds.com/prejudice.html). The shortsightedness and narrow focus among college professors just amazes me sometimes.

I often tell my students that history takes a long view, not a short one. I show them bestseller lists from the '20s or 30s just to show them how few of the writers there are still remembered today, even though they were considered 'important' writers in their day. I'll point out the many, many writers who vanished for years and decades after their deaths, only to be 'rediscovered' later and considered important (Melville, Charlotte Perkins GIlman, Shakespeare himself --in fact, far too many writers to list).

Will the speculative fiction being written today ever be considered to be 'true literature'? I think it should be: good, effective writing is good, effective writing, regardless of genre. I also strongly feel that "literary" writing is just as bound by tropes and conventions as genre work -- in other words, it's simply another 'genre' on its own, with its own 'formulas' the writer is expected to fulfill. But...

I don't think you're going to get that admission from academia any time soon. Ask me again in 2100 -- assuming you can resurrect me in a seance.

- So what's the scoop on the forthcoming Wild Card novels, Busted Flush? Give us something to look forward to!

BUSTED FLUSH is going to be one fantastic ride, I can tell you that much. The writers for the volume will be a mix of 'new' and 'old' writers to the series: Melinda Snodgrass, John Jos. Miller, Victor Milan, Walton (Bud) Simons, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Carrie Vaughn, Ian Tregillis, Caroline Spector, and myself. There are two (or perhaps three, depending on how you want to count 'em) basic threads to the story -- suffice it to say that the new Committee will have their hands full, and not all will go well. My own story will once again feature Michael Vogali (aka DB, aka Drummer Boy), and he will not emerge unscathed from the experience.

I will tell you that you're going to see perhaps the most dangerous 'ace' of all time in this one -- and, of course, the usual WILD CARDS twists and turns and changes!



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