Blake Charlton Interview
Blake Charlton, author of Spellwright, the imminent Spellbound, and the forthcoming Spellbreaker, isn’t your usual kind of fantasy writer. Of course he’s as charming as the next writer, and has great hair (!), writes excellent fiction and crafts fascinating worlds, but moreover, he’s also a Med student at Stanford. Not your usual recipe for a SFF writer, especially when you take into account his severe dyslexia. Nevertheless, despite a tight schedule and medical education, Blake manages to produce intriguing, fascinating fantasy that is not only relevant and insightful, but also worthy of praise from critics, reviewers and many other big, established names in fantasy. His debut novel was nominated for two David Gemmell Legend Awards: the award for best fantasy debut—the Morningstar—and the award for Best Fantasy itself.
For Fantasy-Faction readers unfamiliar with you and your work, who is Blake Charlton right now and what’s he all about?
Authors are often the last to know what their work actually achieves, or doesn’t. So my readers would better know what my books are truly about. That said…I’d describe myself chiefly as an epic fantasist trying to revive what was best about the classic epics of the 80s and 90s while injecting a fresh perspective into the genre. I try to straddle the “young adult” and “adult fantasy” divide by writing what I call “YA Crossunder” fantasy. Being both severely dyslexic and a medical student, I draw on the themes of disability, disease, language, biological science, and healing to try to reinvent old tropes.
I am fascinated by authors of multiple dimensions and so try to make my career as weird diverse as possible. Although best known for the Spellwright Trilogy—Spellwright, Spellbound, and the forthcoming Spellbreaker (working title)—I have also published a hard science fiction novelette (Text Audio), a website on the medical physical exam (cited by the New York Times), and a few articles in academic medical journals. I plain on writing until they nail my coffin shut and hope to keep my readers pleasantly guessing about what I’m going to produce next.
Specifically for new readers, how would you introduce the world of Spellwright and Spellbound, specifically, the fascinating magic system?
So…imagine a world in which you could peel written words off a page and make them physically real. You might pick your teeth with a sentence fragment, protect yourself with defensive paragraphs, or thrust a sharply-worded sentence at an enemy’s throat. This is the world of the Spellwright Trilogy. In the first book, Spellwright, we meet Nicodemus Weal, an apprentice at the wizardly academy of Starhaven. Because of how fast he can forge the magical runes that create spells, Nicodemus was thought to be the Halcyon, a powerful spellwright prophesied to prevent an event called the War of Disjunction, which would destroy all human language.
There was only one problem: Nicodemus couldn’t spell.
Runes must be placed in the correct order to create a spell. Deviation results in a “misspell”—a flawed text that behaves in an erratic, sometimes lethal, manner. And Nicodemus has a disability, called cacography, that causes him to misspell texts simply by touching them. Now twenty-five, Nicodemus lives in the aftermath of failing to fulfill prophecy. He finds solace only in reading knightly romances and in the teachings of Magister Shannon, an old blind wizard who’s left academic politics to care for Starhaven’s disabled students. But when a powerful wizard is murdered with a misspell, Shannon and Nicodemus become the primary suspects. Proving their innocence becomes harder when the murderer begins killing male cacographers one by one…and all evidence suggests that Nicodemus will be next. Hunted by both investigators and a hidden killer, Shannon and Nicodemus race to discover the truth about the murders, the nature of magic, and themselves.
With the release of Spellbound upcoming in the UK (September 29th), now is an ideal time to lure in new readers and whet the appetites of current fans by giving a little insight into what the latest book has to offer. What can readers expect from Spellbound? Does the story step up its game in the second installment to live up to the impressive standard set by Spellwright?
I am very excited to introduce Spellbound to the world and particularly eager to hear what my readers across the pond think. Spellbound is the second book in the series, but it begins ten years after the events of Spellwright. Though Nicodemus is a prominent protagonist in the book, he now shares the limelight with Francesca DeVega, a character I delight in writing.
Most epic fantasies are told in a continuous and ever-expanding manner, each book taking place immediately after or just before the last book—epic fantasy as a tidal wave, as it were. I want to tell an epic fantasy in a string of self-contained and distinct books—epic fantasy not as a tidal wave but as a rock skipping over water. In this, as in many different things (including an attempt to straddle the division between ‘young adult’ and ‘adult’ fantasy) I am deliberately imitating Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books. So, does Spellbound live up to Spellwright? Only the readers can judge that; however, I am happy to provide a bit of a pitch here and now:
So…Francesca DeVega is a healer in the city of Avel, composing magical sentences that close wounds and disspell curses, but her life is thrown into chaos when a newly dead patient sits up and tells her that she must flee the infirmary or face a fate worse than death. Suddenly Francesca finds herself in the middle of a game she doesn’t understand—one that ties her to the notorious rogue wizard Nicodemus Weal and brings her face-to-face with demons, demigods, and a man she hoped never to see again. Meanwhile, it has been ten years since Nicodemus Weal escaped the Starhaven Academy. Nico has honed his skills in the dark Chthonic languages, readying himself for his next encounter with Typhon. But there are complications: his mentor suffers from an incurable curse, his half-sister’s agents are hunting him, and he’s still not sure what part Francesca DeVega will play. He certainly doesn’t know what to make of Francesca herself.
Following on from that, does the excellent reception of Spellwright—praised by genre mainstays the likes of Robin Hobb, Tad Williams, and Terry Brooks—instill a serious case of nerves regarding Spellbound’s release? How does Spellbound compare with Spellwright to you, and what’s its role in the series as a whole?
Certainly, before book one launched, I was a puddle of raw nerves. Robin, Tad, Terry, and others are my childhood authorial heroes, and I was extremely nervous that my book would live up to the faith they had put in it. It was therefore a great relief to see the book’s heartening critical reception and international success; so far, we’ve sold translation rights in Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Spanish, Czech, and Hebrew. Granted, Spellwright was not the most celebrated debut fantasy of the year—a distinction won by N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which has been rightly nominated for most every award under the sun. Some felt that Spellwright is too much of a throwback to the ‘classic’ fantasy of the 80s and 90s when the dominant school of fantasy is now of the graphic and gritty flavour à la George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, etc. I hope Spellwright marks more of a renaissance of an older form—“neoclassical” fantasy, if you will—than anything so mundane as a throwback. However, Spellwright did more than well enough by my lights, and my goal for Spellbound is that it exceed its predecessor.
Did I manage to accomplish that in Spellbound? The readers will be the final judges of that and I anxiously wait for their reactions. However, at the time of writing, I’ve received several heartening critical accolades. The notoriously hard-to-please Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and called it, “Absolutely not to be missed.” Library Journal also gave it a starred review and compared it to the works of Terry Brooks. Romantic Times Book Reviews gave it 4 out of 4.5 stars and praised the characterization of the two protagonists. Several bloggers I respect have weighed in favourably. As I mentioned, all of this is encouraging; however, critical success does not always translate to popular success, which in my opinion, is the most important metric.
I like how you talk about “Neoclassical fantasy”. It’s particularly relevant after the last interview I did for Fantasy-Faction—with Songs of the Earth author, Elspeth Cooper—when the notion of throwing off all link to classic fantasy’s roots and striving for the “new” and “modern” was raised. Cooper said “fantasy’s a broad church”, suggesting that both classic-made-new—Neoclassical, as you describe it—and the new breed of grittier fantasy can live harmoniously together. What’s your opinion on the future of fantasy fiction as a genre with these two veins coexisting, and why does Neoclassical appeal to you? Is fantasy well overdue this “renaissance” of a classic form?
I agree with Cooper, and—to build on her metaphor—I would argue that we spend too much time dividing sets of pews. True, the dynamics of popular estimation are such that, as Oscar Wilde noted, “nothing succeeds like success.” Gritty fantasy powered by HBO’s A Game of Thrones series seems to be rising to new heights of popularity. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on gritty epic fantasy winning new readers from the TV audience. If I’m right, gritty fantasy will proliferate for a few years more before some new school of fantasy breaks away. Will that new school be neoclassical fantasy as I see it? Perhaps, perhaps not. I’ve recently been loving Ready Player One by Ernie Cline, which has a cogent spirit of revitalization of early 80s themes. Judging by that book’s meteoric success, I’d guess that there is a hunger to see the best of the past reborn both in science fiction and fantasy.
However, who’s to say that the next school of fantasy won’t be something that tries to break all ties to the past—a revolution instead of a renaissance? By my lights, the only dangerous thing to do when a literary trend starts gaining mainstream popularity is to copy it. I am attracted to neoclassical fantasy because it allows me to explore the themes of some of the most meaningful books in my life. Though I doubt my particular flavour of fantasy is about to become the dominant one in the next year or so, I am heartened that fantasy readers are receptive to diversity; in fact, they may become even more so if I am correct about a coming wave of A Game of Thrones inspired readers and authors.
So in final answer to your question, no, I don’t see popular fantasy literature as being overdue for a renaissance or a revolution at the moment; however, I would say that now such an event is now inevitable and on the horizon.
Nicodemus Weal is a cacographer; essentially a dyslexic wizard: how much of yourself is in Nicodemus, and did writing the series ever feel—in part—like a surreal, fantasy biography (if we ignore the tangible magic and prophecies, of course)?
I think most readers quickly recognize that Nicodemus is based on me when they read about his long flowing hair. (Here might be a good place to place a picture of my bald head.) More seriously, Nico is much inspired by my experiences as a young disabled person. When I first started the trilogy at 22-years-old, I identified with Nico. However, it took me nearly 7 years to get that first book published, and by that point, I identified more with Shannon, both as a teacher and as a someone who had come to better terms with my disability. Now, as a medical student, I identify more with Francesca than any of the other characters.
I’m of the opinion that most every piece of fiction is an autobiographical event. This can be both a good and a bad thing. Most everyone’s heard the imperative “Write about what you know.” Or maybe, “Write about what you love.” I think if you obey those two commands only, you’ll end up with mush, a love-in. I add a third commandment: “Write about what you fear.” Doing so adds tension between you and your subject. It forces an author to discover what causes the fear. It forces an author to play with fire. As a whole, the Spellbound Trilogy confronts the theme of disability, which forces me as a disabled person to play with fire, as it were. Each book in the series draws upon different aspects of this larger theme. Spellwright is a coming-of-age quest focusing on Nicodemus; my hope for that book was to examine what it is like to be a young disabled person struggling to gain an education and prove competency. Spellbound is more of a thriller and romance focusing on Francesca; with it, I hope to examine how disability affects someone in the prime of life and in a demanding profession. Spellbreaker…well…I don’t want to speak too soon about it.
When did you begin mulling over ideas for the series and what came first: the magic system, the story, or the characters? Furthermore, how did you think up the magic system, and did your dyslexia inspire it on any level?
So, the idea came to me when I was in my junior year at Yale University. I was the only learning-disabled student I knew and semi-terrified that I was an admission mistake. I also was painfully earnest about cultivating the “life of the mind.” The previous summer, I had revisited the first books I had read by myself, fantasies all of them. So the genre was in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t searching for an epic idea. It just happened.
Specifically, it just happened in a particularly boring English seminar on Shakespearian tragedy and ancient Greek tragedy. Fascinating syllabus, underwhelming lecture. Ever the academic keener, I was jotting down notes. Back then, I still wrote mostly in a phonetic script, especially for words I had never seen spelled. For example, I might write the word “onomatopoeia” as “onohmonohpeeah.” Next to me sat another junior with whom I had something of a rivalry. We had taken several English classes together and often butted heads about interpretations. I both disliked and grudgingly respected him. At this particular moment, he had stopped listening to the lecture and was eyeing my notes. “Wow,” he whispered while tapping on my phonetic shorthand, “you really did ride the short bus to school.”
I think I said something inane like, “Tell me about it,” when in my mind I had this image of pulling my misspelled words off the page and using them like a boxing glove to punch him in the face. I was still steaming after class as I walked back to my residential college. It was a beautiful dark, late-autumn day: the first snow of the year seems only moments away. Yale was built in imitation of Oxford and Cambridge: gothic arches, stone spires, the whole bit. My residential college, Trumbull College, is particularly beautiful, abutting the magnificent stained glass windows of Sterling Memorial Library. I found myself wandering around Trumbull’s neo-gothic courtyards and dreaming of clubbing my rival with physically real sentences. In particular, I paced the Potty Court: a stone courtyard that houses a semi-famous stone gargoyle sitting on a toilet.
Suddenly, the idea for Spellwright bloomed in my imagination. In a world where written language could be made physically real, universities would be vitally important. They might have even more spectacular gothic architecture and living gargoyles. In this world, authors would be terribly powerful and, because words had to be physically created, their muscles would be as important as their brains. And of course, being dyslexic would be really, really dangerous. How then would the magic spells behave? At the time I was studying biochemistry, specifically how the language of DNA made proteins that affect the physical world. I decided that magical language would behave like organic macromolecules: it would have to fold into a correct conformation to become effective.
About an hour later, I had an outline for a young spellwright whose touch caused any text to misspell. Turning that into a novel, however, took eight more years.
On the topic of ideas and inspiration, has there been anything you’ve read and decided ‘I don’t want my work to go that way; I want to do this instead’? Conversely, from where does the majority of your inspiration come, which you subsequently channel into your writing?
As you might guess from the above, I draw most of my inspiration about subject matter from the events that happen around me. For the past four years, that means that I have drawn a great deal from medical science and clinical practice. However, for the Spellwright Trilogy at least, I have drawn inspiration for the narrative form from the classic epic fantasies of the likes of Robin Hobb, Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, Raymond Fiest, etc.
When I read a book that strikes me as purely brilliant, I go through phases—usually delight to admiration to envy to inspiration. Strange as it might sound, the “envy” phase is often the most useful, if also the most unpleasant. For example, I greatly admire Daniel Abraham’s work. When I read his The Long Price Quartet, I was entranced by his prose style and characterization. At first, Daniel’s genius delighted me, then when I compared it to my own prose style, it induced an abject depression. However, when I went back to manuscript, I did so with a renewed vigour. I don’t think my prose approximates Daniel’s, or even shares a great deal in common with it; however, I do think it improved as a result of his influence. While working on this series, I have been delighted by and envious of the wit in Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and Gail Carriger’s Soulless, the brilliant premise of China Miéville’s The City & The City, the humour and insight of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part Time Indian. I know some authors actively avoid reading when they are writing so that they are not subject to such influences; for me, I think it is a vital part of maturing as an author.
After Spellbreaker is released, signaling the completion of the trilogy, what is on the cards next? Any other projects lined up alongside your med studies?
The what-is-next question is beginning to loom. Things are getting a bit more complicated in my life. Until this year, I easily balanced the classroom and research demands of medical school with writing. I made my own schedule and met my deadlines, simple. This year is my first as a “clinical” medical student. My schedule is no longer my own. The work hours and the tasks can be all-consuming. Stanford has been gracious enough to give me time off to promote Spellbound, but I simply cannot write while on surgery or internal medicine service. However, fairly soon, I’ll complete my clinical requirements and have about a year to knock off the rest of book three. But thereafter I will start residency, in what specialty of medicine I don’t yet know. From everything I have heard, residency is an order of magnitude more consuming than medical school. So, my first goal will be to survive.
That said, I plan to write until they nail my coffin shut. As those who have read Spellbound might guess, taking care of patients has exposed me to a great deal of inspiring, terrifying, awe-inducing experiences that cry out for the page. My fourth book will not likely be in the Spellwright universe. Another trilogy in the Spellwright world may be in the works later on, but now I’m itching to try out several other ideas: a Magic Realism/New Weird novel inspired by the time I spent in special ed; a humorous novel about the foibles of the American medical system (and they are legion); a Tim Powers-ish secret history novel about Thomas Lodge, a playwright who competed with Shakespeare but then became a physician. I daydream about these things when studying for an exam or when recovering from an overnight shift, but how it’s all going to fit together…well…it’s going to be interesting.
To finish up with something fun: If you were sent to the moon, and could take only three books with you, which would they be, and why?
I don’t know if I can answer this question. I’m breaking out into a sweat just thinking about what I would do if I could only take 100 books. Only three…I shudder and move on to the next question.
Is there a book you’ve read, hated, and never want to read again, for whatever reason?
There have been any number of books that I have despised, but a book is the product of countless hours of love and toil. I know that to an author a book is very like a child. Unless a book is outright hateful or dangerous, I couldn’t bring myself to publically insult it…no more than I could bring myself to publically insult a child. And, unfortunately for the purposes of writing an interesting response to your question, I haven’t lately read any hateful or dangerous books.
Your favourite book, and why is it your favourite?
I can pick only one? Okay, now this is bordering on sadism; I could barely bring myself to list my top hundred.
Blake Charlton is published by Harper Voyager in the UK and his books—currently Spellwright and Spellbound (forthcoming September 29, 2011)—are available from practically everywhere and will be loved by newcomers to the genre and veterans alike.