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Chris Evans Interview

Chris Evans, military non-fiction editor and author of the completed Iron Elves Trilogy, is a Canadian writer whose first fantasy trilogy takes a look at what a classic fantasy world might look like two hundred years on: with a clear Napoleonic vibe and a marriage of Kipling and Tolkien, Evans’ work brings something very new and exciting to the genre.

As an introduction—both for current readers, and for those new to you and the Iron Elves—who is Chris Evans right now and what’s he all about?

Chris EvansMuch like the actor and the radio personality of the same name, I see myself as an entertainer. I’m a story teller hoping to engage the reader with an epic adventure. I’m also a Canadian who’s lived in America for eleven years which makes me feel a bit dispossessed, sort of the outsider who blends in so well no one really knows he’s different…unless I start talking about polar bears and hockey.

I’m an editor of military history by trade, a historian by graduate degree and scholarly papers, and a fantasy writer by passion. I enjoy running, loathe loud car horns and absolutes, admire curiosity, have a difficult time understanding faith, and am single. How much of that is connected I haven’t yet figured out.

I write because I want to and I need to. I call it a passion, but it would be just as easy to label it an addiction. I long for the high I get when creating a new character or develop a plot twist that even surprises me. I swing between supreme self-confidence and cowering lack thereof while I write, but luckily I inherited my parents’ stubbornness and work ethic and gave that an even stiffer spine with just a touch of sheer-bloody-mindedness. It probably explains my broken jaw, knee, tailbone, and front tooth – acquired playing hockey and cricket – and the myriad other contusions I’ve suffered thus far, and why I continue to pick myself back up, flash a bloody grin, wink, and take another swing.

The brightest literary constellations that light my way take the form of Rudyard Kipling, George MacDonald Fraser, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Terry Pratchett. Their works are the mountains I climb and the mines I plumb. When I’m not scaling those heights I enjoy watching television and checking out the live music scene in NYC.

For readers new to the adventures of the Iron Elves regiment, and to refresh the minds of current fans ready for the launch of Ashes of a Black Frost, (and without giving too much away from the previous two books) what’s the story of the soldiers of the Iron Elves unit? Who are they? What are they doing? Where are they now?

In many respects, the Iron Elves series is a fantasy I’ve always wanted to read. I wanted to see what Tolkien’s world and tropes and races would look like 500 years on. Not that I’m following his mythology, but I wanted to explore the templates he laid down and extrapolate from there. So many authors have plumbed the depths of fantasy set in a medieval, western European setting, and done it incredibly well, that I knew that if I was to write a story I had to choose something different. At the same time, I wanted to acknowledge that history and use it as a springboard, which is what I’ve attempted to do. So for example, there are elves in this world, but not all of them view trees and the natural world with the same affinity as Legolas.

I count myself extremely fortunate in that I work with combat veterans everyday in my job. In helping these soldiers recount the tragedy, the humour, the fear, and the heroism they experienced, I’m constantly amazed at their self-effacing candour when describing the things they’ve seen and done that most of us – thankfully – never will. When I set out to write the Iron Elves series I wanted to create a big fantasy adventure that explored an entire world in real peril, but experience it primarily through the common, and not so common, soldier’s perspective. What, for instance, would a foot soldier think of a magical oath that granted immortality, but at a very high personal cost?

Major Konowa Swift Dragon, Sergeant Yimt Arkhorn, and Private Alwyn Renwar of the Imperial Calahrian Army were chosen to give three very different perspectives on life in the military in a time period approximating the late 1700s/early 1800s. As Konowa is both an elf and officer, Yimt a dwarf and non-commissioned officer, and Alwyn a human and private, this trio allows for three differing views on the world of the Iron Elves. That each has a very unique temperament was deliberate as well, especially the pairing of the career soldier Yimt with the young recruit Alwyn. For those who have already noted that Yimt and Alwyn form the archetype comedic duo, they aren’t wrong. In his humour, Yimt still manages to express some pretty intelligent observations about life although it often takes those around him a while to figure that out. Truth be told, he’s been my favourite character to write.

Each of these three soldiers has seen horrors that no one should, and each has killed. For Konowa, killing is a means to an end and an outlet for the rage and frustration he feels as an elf at odds with his magical heritage. He is so driven to complete his mission – the destruction of the Shadow Monarch and the redemption of the original Iron Elves – that it’s hard to imagine how he’ll cope if he should succeed in his tasks and wake up one day with nothing left to fight. It’s easier to see Yimt adjusting quite nicely to a more sedate life, sitting in a comfy chair, chewing crute and smoking a pipe. He’s a soldier because it’s what he was born to do, and yet it’s not all he is. Alwyn, however, is a young man on the edge. He’s naïve, impulsive, scared, and yet still wants to do the right thing. The horrors that he sees, and experiences, are changing him, and how and if he can survive both the physical and mental stresses as the world plunges further into chaos remains to be seen.

In choosing to tell an epic fantasy tale through the voices of soldiers, I also took my inspiration from writers like Kipling. Kipling was incredibly sympathetic to the plight of the regular soldier and wrote eloquently and with exceptional detail about them. I loved the idea of taking a vast Empire in a fantasy world on the verge of collapse, and exploring how the characters in the book would react to that dawning realization.

Ashes of a Black Frost, the final novel in the Iron Elves Trilogy, releases this month (from Simon and Schuster (UK)); how does Ashes compare with the previous Iron Elves novels (A Darkness Forged in Fire and The Light of Burning Shadows) and what can readers expect from the Iron Elves’ finale?

I’ve matured as an author, but in many ways that just means I see even more areas I need to improve on from book to book. Ashes keeps up the high tempo I set in motion with The Light of Burning Shadows and really doesn’t let up. It’s meant to be a bit breathless and messy as the characters careen toward a final showdown.

I’ve never been a fan of the overly intricate plot that ties every last thread up in a neat bow. That can be very clever, but I’ve often found it also feels artificial. Life, for anyone who’s lived it, is controlled chaos. Yes, this third book offers a majority of resolutions to plot lines throughout the series, but some aspects don’t neatly resolve. In my view, they simply shouldn’t.

Readers of the Iron Elves should, I hope, feel at the end of Ashes that they’ve joined the lads on a wild adventure. If they find more than that then I’m very pleased.

It’s interesting that you talk about both imagining Tolkien’s world and races centuries later, and cast both elves and dwarves in your world, especially following a discussion on the forums, asking “where did all the elves and dwarves go?” It’s true that there have been fewer elves in modern fantasy stories; however, people suggest that they’re still there, merely called different things. Sam Sykes “Shict” or Richard Morgan’s “Dwenda,” for example. Your elves are elves—at least in part—in the Tolkien sense of the word, and as you’ve revealed, this was deliberate. Elves have been a mainstay of fantasy for some time, though their numbers have dwindled somewhat. But Blake Charlton (author of Spellwright and Spellbound) suggests we might be about to see a return to classic fantasy, a “Neoclassical” trend, so to speak: Do you think, given your motivations for the Iron Elves, and seeking to further explore Tolkien’s world, tropes and races, that the trilogy has some part in this possible shift in the genre?

There does seem to be a split within fantasy where gritty, realistic stories without elves and dwarves but with every possible depravity and sexual deviance you can imagine are now viewed – in some circles – as the serious and respected element of the genre while books still using the traditional touchstones are viewed as somehow quaint and unsophisticated. It’s a silly and unhelpful distinction, sort of like forming a circular firing squad – you’ll get your shot off, but to what end?

I think a food analogy illustrates just how absurd all of this is. It’s like saying I only eat cheeseburgers or I only eat caviar. Variety, as the old saw goes, is the spice of life. The fantasy genre would be crushingly dull and excruciating if it were to adopt a monolithic approach to storytelling. Admittedly, for a very long time fantasy was dominated by Tolkienesque adventures complete with the standard tropes and medieval setting. Now, there’s a whole slew of writers eschewing that format and opting for exceptionally graphic, brutal, dark, and soap opera-like dramatics and some of these have clearly met with huge success. Their approach has been to chuck Tolkien’s baby with the bathwater and start over, setting aside the myth building element and much of the magic and instead focusing on human flaws and bitter conflict.

Elves-TolkienI feel like I fall somewhere in the middle, and I don’t argue that it’s any better or worse than the other styles, it just happens to be the area I want to explore. The Iron Elves was always written to be an entertaining story. I want to make the reader laugh, cry, scream, curse, and were it possible, shoulder a musket and join the Iron Elves on their adventures. By putting muskets in the hands of elves, bringing the medieval setting forward to something akin to the late 1700s, and having an elf hate the forest I did choose to tweak some of Tolkien’s tropes, but I suppose I chose to keep the baby and simply get fresh water. My dwarf character, Yimt Arkhorn, offers comedic relief, but if you look past the laughter there’s a real wisdom in his philosophy. My wise old sage is a woman (not a man) of indeterminate age and power who acts ostensibly as a war reporter. Part Hemingway, a dash of Gandalf, and a lot of rogue.

Whether I’m part of a shift in the genre I don’t know. The beauty of fantasy is that it can encompass such an incredible variety of styles. I do think there is room for elves, dwarves, dragons, and magic, and that these elements can exist in a book that is gritty, brutal, and raw. My first trilogy took a few steps toward that goal and I feel proud of what I accomplished. Having already started on my next book, a standalone fantasy set in a new world, I can tell you that it will feature elves, dwarves, magic, and dragons, and also be significantly darker and focused on character flaws while still crafting a large, entertaining adventure.

Let’s talk about elves some more. Possibly the best part about Konowa, is that he breaks many of the stereotypes associated with elves, or at least, with the standard view of a Tolkienesque elf. What’s more, his animosity with his own race, moreover, his own self, creates a lot of internal character conflict that already cleaves the cliché in half. However, much of Konowa’s conflict with himself originates from the fact that he’s marked by the Shadow Monarch, and in turn, alienated from his own race in a sense. This raises many issues about belonging. Where does Konowa really belong, and is he ever likely to discover where for himself? In turn, where do elves really belong in a changing SFF genre where writers desperately try to shake off the old clichés laid down by fantasy’s predecessors?

I think Konowa’s feeling of being dispossessed is a definite reflection of my own. Having lived in the US for a quarter of my life I still can’t call myself American, yet I’m no longer solely Canadian, either. I also wasn’t keen on forcing him to conform to elf tradition because really, why should he? Why should any elf have to commune with nature? It’s a bit like the whole argument on homosexuality. Whether it’s a choice or not, it’s up to the individual to plot his or her own course. In Konowa’s case, he’s an elf because he didn’t have a choice. I suspect that even if he hadn’t been marked by the Shadow Monarch he would have had a difficult time living a traditional elvish lifestyle. I don’t want to give too much away, but if you read to the end of the series you’ll see that Konowa arrives at a state that makes sense to him.

On the larger question of where elves belong, I think it’s very much wherever an author wants to put them. I chose to give some of mine muskets and re-examine the whole bonding with nature construct. Judging by reader mail the vast majority were thrilled with the concept. It’s not for me to suggest what the genre should do, but I can tell you that my intent is to use the traditions and re-examine them in a succession of new ways. For example, my next book will delve deep into race relations. Are dwarves really born miners, or were they enslaved and made to work in the dark, dangerous places the other races wouldn’t go? Is a dwarf a truly unique species, or a version of human? Are humans an off shoot of dwarves? Do all the races come from the same ancestor? If so, what are the ramifications of that? And what if they aren’t? Can all races interbreed and create healthy babies? What would the reaction be to a half dwarf/half elf offspring? How much does racial purity matter? If an elf really does live so much longer than a dwarf or a human, wouldn’t the other races desire to know why and have the ability, too? Would they be willing to go to war over it?

Some absolutely fantastic notions here and it’s all very exciting stuff, given that the topics suggested are still mainly hidden under the water level of conservative fantasy conventions. The tip of the iceberg has been visible for some time now, as we begin to move away from strictly conservative views and ideals in fantasy (as discussed already on the forums), but there’s still a long way to go. Addressing belonging, culture and race may well be the next stage in this process. Fantasy is no longer full of straight, white human men. How important in the evolution of the genre do you think it is that this push against conservative fantasy continues, and how might it shape the genre as you see it if the boundaries are taken down entirely in the next few decades?

I think it’s always important for new voices to challenge those already established in the field. It keeps things vibrant and in flux. Stasis is death. Just as George R.R. Martin and others reacted to the somewhat moribund state of traditional fantasy, there is a new generation of which it appears I’m a part reacting to the removal of magic, elves, dwarves and other traditional fantastic elements. I see a trend developing where fantasy can be dark, graphic, and adult and include elves and dragons and the like. To me, that’s a far more interesting area to explore than taking the magic out of fantasy.

Not forgetting about the dwarves, Yimt is an excellent character. Yes, in many ways, he is the typical dwarf fantasy fans have come to expect. He does have aspects that are new, for example; he is soon promoted, and holds a higher rank; he speaks about home and his wife; he has a sense of humour which he shares with the lads; he cooks, and tries to be a figure of support—all very expected aspects of any regular soldier in a regiment ranking higher than the privates. Still, whichever way you look at it, Yimt is a dwarf to his core. But is this a negative thing? Surely not every representation of a race/person need be new and original if the character is crafted elegantly and expertly?

The overwhelming fan favourite is Yimt, by several orders of magnitude, so I think that goes a long way to answer the question. We need to first understand that the reason things become tradition, cliché, tropes etc. is because they are elements that have worked incredibly well and brought a lot of entertainment to a lot of people over a very long time. I often think this quest for total originality is a bit misguided. My quest is to entertain. Being original for the sake of originality seems exceptionally reactionary. Stand it on its head and look at the idea again. To be wholly original is to first understand everything that has gone before, reject all of it, and then craft something so unique that it bears no markings of anything we have any real knowledge of. The closer you get to that ideal, the closer you get to gibberish. We’re able to communicate because we have a shared understanding – language, culture…traditions. So no, I don’t think it’s a negative thing at all.

This view on tropes and clichés is fantastic and again hints at the notion of a coming Renaissance within the genre, as writers and readers alike become less caught up in the idea that what’s been used before, and then used again, makes for bad fiction. Many writers share the view: Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth strives to be a story that she wrote as she imagined it, nothing else, whilst Peter Orullian’s The Unremembered sees an almost revolutionary return (measured against the modern market) of a very classic style of epic fantasy. Your own work picks tropes as though from a cafeteria buffet, choosing only what’s desired; it’s a technique that—quite obviously—works well.

But, the idea that these classic tropes and clichés are negative aspects to include in modern fantasy must have come from somewhere and since the idea is only just beginning to recede, is it possible these notions have placed restrictions on the natural growth of the genre, coercing some writers to steer clear of elements that might have otherwise featured in their work?

I suspect the negative connotations attached to so much of traditional fantasy arose in part from an understandable reaction to reading a long line of copies of copies. The deeper problem, however, seems to be rooted in this notion that the fantasy genre has never been respected and that for it to ever be viewed as legitimate it needs that respect. That’s always sounded insecure and needy to me. Even after the movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings made fantasy one of the pre-eminent entertainment forms on the planet, there are many who look instead to the grittier, minimalist magic novels for this sought after respect.

Perhaps it’s all about one’s goals in writing fantasy. I unabashedly and with pride write to entertain. I write to tell a story. I write to enthrall and engage the reader. I like the traditional foundations of fantasy and choose to root around in them and pull out new elements, or at least look at the old ones in a new way. If that relegates me to the “unserious” crowd of fantasy authors then I’ll happily pull up a chair in that corner of the tavern, hack off a piece of roasting meat on the spit, and wink at the barmaid.

It’s obvious from previous answers that you write fantasy because it’s a passion, and you needed to put down in words and fashion into stories your own interpretations and reactions to the fantasy that affected you most: how often do you think writers craft stories that are just that—reactions to what they read and moreover, what they see around them in the world? Is any form of writing, especially fantasy, with its immense scope and ability to convey other worlds and everything besides, merely a reaction or response to a particular issue, thought, or speculation?

China Mieville

China Mieville

I believe China Miéville once spoke about how his complete rejection of Tolkien and traditional fantasy was, by default, still influenced by it. Anyone reading Miéville would certainly have a hard time finding any straight lines connecting him to Tolkien other than perhaps the complete lack of one.

Fantasy is a lot like abstract art in the sense that the consumer of the art brings their own experience and perceptions to the piece and that in turn colors what they see. In my case, I work with military veterans and am a trained military historian. The aspects of warfare and its aftermath are things I care about and find fascinating, so it was natural that I would write about these things.

My view of fantasy is in large part based on the notion that these created worlds are in many respects alternate histories of our own. Whether it’s earth or Middle Earth, the grass is green, the rocks hard, and the water, well, water. What if one of our ancestral branches had evolved into a race of elves, or orcs? What would our world have looked like with dwarves, dragons, and magic? Would it have been so vastly different than our actual history? The numerous fantasies that have explored this would suggest that the answer is probably not.

What would you say to anyone discouraged to explore the more classic tropes and themes of fantasy, by the misconception that this sort of fantasy is frowned upon and looked-over by agents and publishers? If a Renaissance is beginning, and current publications show that to be the case, surely these stories will be published regardless, because someone—like Cooper, writing the story initially with herself as the target audience—will write them?

Writing for the market and the perceived trends is a soulless and ultimately self-defeating exercise. Writing is already a long, difficult, and at times even excruciating process. To add to that the notion of writing something other than what you are truly passionate about seems masochistic. I do write for myself first, but also with the intent that I want to convey what I am doing to others. I’m not sure how to do it any other way. To me, putting a musket in the hands of a tree-hating elf seemed like the perfect choice. I really didn’t know what the fantasy world’s reaction would be, but then I didn’t particularly care, either. Sure, I wanted to get published, but I wanted to tell my story my way. I’m fairly certain they call that integrity.

Whether traditional fantasy rises again will depend very much on the quality of the writing. If authors craft fascinating characters with interesting plots then I see no reason why we won’t see a whole new generation of sword and sorcery novels emerge.

In relation to this, do you think fantasy such as this will remain less appreciated until this would-be Renaissance picks up pace, and until then aspiring writers might face rejection more than those writing more modern fantasy? Having experienced the publishing industry, what advice can you give to aspiring authors on how to deal with rejection, likely based on their adherence to classic styling?

Again, if writers exploring traditional fantasy tropes create riveting stories then they’ll have a great chance to succeed. As an editor, I receive hundreds of manuscripts in a year. I only buy and publish around thirty books a year, so you can see the math is daunting, or is it? The reality is most of the manuscripts I receive, and this goes for most editors and agents, aren’t going to be published for a litany of reasons. Sending me a murder mystery is a sure fire way to get a rejection because I publish military history. If an aspiring writer can’t do basic homework to find out what an agent represents, or an editor publishes, the writer is doomed to failure. Sadly, that’s a lot of them. But it’s good news for those who do their research. Already, their odds have improved. I look at it with a Darwinian eye – the strong, the smart, the persistent will continue to improve their odds of being published while the lazy and incurious will be left behind.

manuscripts

Read. If you do nothing else to improve your writing skills, do this. Read widely, read diversely, and read like your career depends on it, because it does. If your fantasy has a complex murder mystery in it and you’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes story or a history of forensic pathology then your odds of getting published are probably dim. A battle for the throne, perhaps? Read the history of a real monarchy to get a feel for what’s happened in real life. A blind character? Ask someone so afflicted. Wrap a scarf around your head and bump around your house for a day. The point being, if you’re not prepared to work hard and put the effort in to make your novel as believable as possible, regardless of how many flying dragons there are, it’s highly unlikely anyone else will bother to read it.

You probably noticed I didn’t suggest you read other fantasies. I suspect you already do, but whether you do or not, I think it crucial you read material that has nothing to do with fantasy, but everything to do with the human condition. That’s where you find real gold. Read the second half of Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. Read Pulitzer Prize winning author Barbara Tuchmann. Read Shakespeare. Read the greats. Read the classics. Read the books that have captivated millions and then rip those books apart and understand why. Think like a mechanic. Tear it down then build it back up again. Be a scientist and test and then retest styles and approaches and above all, keep an open mind.

As for rejection, get used it. It sucks, it hurts, it’s depressing as hell, and just like death at the end of this ride, it’s inevitable. What are you going to about it? I’ll tell you what I do and you can figure out if this works for you. I bitch to my friends, I curse the person who rejected or criticized my work, I pout, I sulk, I whine like a baby…for about fifteen minutes, and then I get on with my life. I read every rejection or criticism once, slowly and carefully. I let the derision and contempt pour over me. I know I am being emotional and irrational and that they probably don’t actually loathe me, but that’s OK, I’m entitled to my reaction no matter how juvenile. When I’ve explored all that bile I then dive deeper, and look for kernels of truth. Is there anything in this rejection I can use? If there is, I pluck it out and add it to my never-ending list of how to be a better writer. The rest of it gets flushed and I am born anew.

What I don’t do is wallow and bemoan that the world just doesn’t understand my brilliance. I know how amazing I am and if you don’t get that then the fault is mine, not yours. It’s up to me to show all of you, not for you to figure it out on your own. That’s the sheer bloody-mindset you need. That’s the rod in your spine that keeps you going week after month after year. You have to believe in yourself, and then you have to show the world that that belief is justified by doing everything in your power to prove it. In the world of publishing, you are presumed illiterate and a waste of everyone’s time until you prove otherwise.

If you want to succeed, and this goes for pretty much everything in this life, you have to find the courage to get hurt, get back up, and do it again. And again. If you won’t put your writing out there for the world to see and possibly point at and laugh then you’re either writing for yourself and no one else (which is perfectly fine) or you’re a coward. You heard me. People are going to say your writing is absolute shit. They say it about mine and I still make a very good living. Hell, many say it about George R.R. Martin, Stephen King, and every writer who has ever written. Guess what, it didn’t stop them. It didn’t stop me, and it shouldn’t stop you. If it does, well, you probably aren’t the kind of person who would read an article like this in the first place.

All of this might sound harsh to some of you, and if it does I can only say good. Think of it as your first scraped knee or break-up where it wasn’t even close to mutual and your heart is shattered on the floor. Life is tough, publishing is tougher. Everyone gets a chance at this world, but only a few get a chance to be published. If you want to be one you need more than a great story. You need will. You need patience. You need a tolerance for pain and disappointment. And most of all, you need curiosity. Thus equipped, you’ll get better. Probably as a person, definitely as a writer.

Chris’ books, A Darkness Forged in Fire, The Light of Burning Shadows, and Ashes of a Black Frost are published by Simon and Schuster (UK) and are available anywhere there’s a competent SFF fan in the buying department. Fans of classic fantasy made new, injected with a splash of military grit, will take to the series immediately, and get carried off with Konowa and the rest of the Iron Elves.

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6 Comments

  1. RSAShark says:

    Why oh why aren’t his books available on Kindle?

  2. Khaldun says:

    Loved the last part of the interview. Thanks Mr. Evans! And thanks to Leo for conducting the interview.

  3. […] Fantasy-Faction before. I also talked about elves and their place in fantasy with Iron Elves author Chris Evans, and throughout all the discussion, whether they have a place in fantasy any longer became a moot […]

  4. […] a topic which I’ve talked about with a handful of fantasy authors (including Elspeth Cooper and Chris Evans), starting with Blake Charlton, who coined the term as I use it in an interview. How do you feel […]

  5. […] and I had every intention of reading and reviewing it immediately—not long after I concluded my interview with Chris Evans, in fact. However, I couldn’t source an ebook immediately and due to problems […]

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