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Peter Orullian Interview

Peter OrullianPeter Orullian is an American SFF author whose Morningstar shortlisted début, The Unremembered, is published by Tor. A frequenter of SFF conventions and speaker at panels alongside fantasy giants Pat Rothfuss and GRRM, Peter is a big new voice in the genre.

For those new to both you as a writer and your work, who is and what’s he all about?

Oh good, a quick one to answer—you know, summarizing a life and all that. Simply put, I’m a writer and musician, who works a day job at Microsoft. That last thing impinges mightily on the former two. Oh, and I have a couple of awesome offspring, which (appropriately) gobble up time. So, to sum up: I’m a creative type with all kinds of worldly responsibilities; yeah, I’m understandably schizophrenic. The underpinning to it all is that I’m rather passionate about things. That knife cuts both ways, as you can imagine.

The Unremembered is the first book of the Vault of Heaven trilogy, and it’s been nominated for the Morningstar award in the David Gemmell Legend Awards. What can readers expect from The Unremembered and how does it feel to have been nominated for the début award?

It feels awesome! I’m in good company, too. Ironically, these kinds of things typically make me feel more humble. In any case, it’s a real honor, and I’m grateful.

What can readers expect? The unexpected. I think I’ve written about this a little bit, but what I’m doing with my series is a combination of a few things. One, I’m writing a story. Duh, right? But in at least one significant respect, I just want to carry off a ripping good yarn. Then, it’s also true that I’m kind of grounding readers in some traditional terrain, but consciously, as my intention is to carefully turn the crank and violate their expectations. Some of this occurs in book one. And it escalates as the series progresses. That whole “things aren’t what they seem” thing? Yeah, like that. Of course, there’s war, and small lives with big expectations, magic, movement across the world, bad guys with real reasons, absent gods, etc, etc. It’s pretty squarely epic fantasy.

The Unremembered has very clear classic fantasy styling, and has been likened to the work of Eddings and Jordan. This immediately brings The Unremembered under my “neo-classical” radar; 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 about The Unremembered being discussed and read as neo-classical fantasy?

Peter Orullian - The Unremembered (cover)“Neo-classical,” yeah. I think I remember Blake using that one in response to an interview he did of me a while back. Interesting term from an interesting guy. I suppose if there are folks discussing the book in those terms, and it works for them, cool. I get email from a lot of readers, and to be honest with you, the classifications and comparisons I hear are really broad. This doesn’t surprise me, as the reading experience is so individual. It’s all frame-of-reference.

An analogy I came up with that I really like goes something like this. As a music fan, when Dream Theater (a favorite band of mine) came out, many of the critics and most of my friends said, “They’re like Queensryche.” And when Queensryche came out, those same folks said, “They’re like Maiden.” I get the comparisons, as these groups have vocalists who sing with great range, power and clarity vs. the more typical rock-n-roll rasp. But it’s a rather simplistic way to broad-stroke these groups, which are all extremely different. They’re all heavy, of course. Just like me and a whole lot of other writers all write fantasy. But I think when you start digging in, the differences are staggering.

And in my case, anyway, the intention is to violate expectations. But I’m of a mind that you do that as it comes naturally to the story. Blatantly trying to simply write something different always comes off feeling forced and affected. Talking with Rothfuss on this topic once, we agreed that simply surprising a reader is easy and even cheap. Telling your story, making use of what you need to do that, and having it organically and delightfully evolve to those new places . . . that’s awesomeness. Least ways, those are the kinds of books I dig.

All of which is to say that I’m fine with whatever frame-of-reference readers have for any book. Regarding my series, I’d just add, don’t get too comfortable.

It’s interesting to hear an author say that “surprising” a reader is easy and cheap: mainly because it’s so true! This made me think of a recent post by Sam Sykes, talking about “gritty” fantasy. Part of surprising or shocking a reader deliberately (rather than, as you say, it simply being a part of the story) definitely falls under the banner of grittiness purely for the sake of it. What do you think of this? Has the opposing branch on the fantasy tree—bent on steering so clear of existing tropes/devices/clichés/etc as to run in the opposite direction—become one of darkening and roughing up fantasy fiction in whatever way possible, with the ends justifying the means: anything to make it dark, dastardly and dirty? Is there any balance left in the genre?

Sacrifice of the First Sheason (cover)Well, first, I’m not sure it’s necessarily an “opposing branch of the fantasy tree.” No effort at contrariness, that. Just saying that “grittiness” in fantasy can be found everywhere. My own work has a lot of this, and increasingly so as the series progresses. But that said, I know what you’re trying to say. The funny this is, if you read something like TVtropes.com, you’ll find it’s pretty hard to steer clear of something that hasn’t been done before. Thus my coinage: “Trope avoidance is the new trope.”

There are novels where it’s painfully obvious the writer has got some kind of checklist (mental or otherwise) that they use to either hit or avoid certain “musts” or “must nots.” This kind of fiction is usually unsatisfying. I’m guessing that the books we love are written by writers who largely aren’t given to “checklists.” Rather, I think they write the story they want to tell, and there you go.

But that’s a crappy answer to your question.

Are there writers whose sole aim is to “be dark?” Yeah. Are there really dark novels written by writers who simply told the tale inside them? Yeah. For my part, I can always tell the difference. So can most readers. I don’t think the genre’s in any danger. And as to balance, it’s an intriguing question. I assume you mean are there novels somewhere between outright bleakness and prancing fairies. (You’ll have to correct me if I’ve oversimplified your thought there.) But if I’m getting you, then my answer is: Of course. Actually, I think plenty of novelists are doing both. I belong to this tribe.

Ultimately, “anything for the sake of it” writing won’t have longevity, whatever the bent. It’s just the wrong focus, craft-wise.

What authors have you read who have been indispensible in your writing education? If you ever have days where pen-meet-paper just isn’t flowing, are there any writers you refer to, think about, or revisit?

Dan Simmons. Stephen King. Dan is brilliant. Don’t bother arguing it. You’ll lose. Same goes for King. Often, cats like King take it in the shorts because of their success. Of course, King has lately received some nice (and well-deserved) accolades. But mostly, they get dismissed by writers as though doing so somehow makes them brighter than the next guy. You know the type; the one who cites some writer no one’s heard of so you think, “Damn, that guy must really be on to something; well read, blah, blah.” Forget that. Readers read writers who tell stories they like. I love reading the exchanges between Stevenson and James on this topic—worth the read if you have the time.

But to get at the heart of your question, guys like Simmons and King (when I really pay attention and break down their technique) floor me in ways a lot of well-respected writers just don’t. They’re telling great yarns, and underneath the hood, there’s a big block V8 hemi that’s purring like nobody’s business. Unfortunately, when you’re nose is too far in the air, you miss the sweet aroma of the exhaust.

Oh, and about “days where pen-meet-paper just isn’t flowing?” I don’t get that. I sit down and go. And I’m not special. Some days feel magical. Some less magical. And when I go back over the whole thing, it’s hard to tell the difference. So, just sit down and go. It works.

Being as busy as you are—as are many aspiring authors—how do you find the time to write, let alone finish a book, polish it, and then sell it? How do you strike a balance between the day-job, the daddying, and the craft?

I get up at 3:30 a.m. to write. Every day. That way, I’m fresh for the writing. I get it done before my work day at ole Xbox. And then I don’t have to cut into family time when I get back in the evening. Of course, I’m not sure that’s balance. It’s not like I want to be getting up that early forever. For now, that’s the schedule, though. Mind you, I was doing that for years before I got the book contract. The moral: Writers write, they don’t make excuses. I hate how cliché that sounds, but I’m leaving it in. There ARE tradeoffs, though. I’ve had to stop doing some things. But I’m pretty good at keeping my priorities—learned that early.

As a musician and a writer, do you feel writing is a tool in your creativity? Do you listen to music whilst writing and if so, are there specific playlists or do you use it entirely as background padding?

The Great Defense of Layosah (cover)Certainly. And I fancy myself a helluva lyricist. A lot of music fans—and musicians, for that matter—take no real interest in the lyrics themselves. More’s the pity for them. All the reading, writing, poetry, and music-listening I’ve done have kind of molded my song-writing quite a bit. And, conversely, the music seems to have had an impact on my writing.

No, I don’t listen to music while I write. A lot of folks assume so. It’s not because I’m against the idea. I just never have. I know a ton of writers that do, and these are folks who routinely hit the NY Times bestseller list. The point, I guess, is that there’s no right answer there. But as for me, it’s not part of my process.

That said, my series is loaded with music. There’s a music magic system, which I get deep into in book two—just finishing up book two now. And beyond the magic system itself, there are a couple of strongly music-related world-building things that readers are going to find in book two, which I think they’re gonna dig. I sure had a hell of a lot of fun writing them. I did a lot of research, too, to lend it some authenticity. So, between that, and the raw power and energy of these music ideas, I’m looking forward to this book getting out there.

Following on from above, being a musician, you’re an artist in two senses of the word: do you think the creativity born from music and the words behind it contributes in any sense towards your creative process as a writer? Have you ever thought up a scene thanks to a particular piece of music or song?

I s’pose I answered a bit of this above. To go further, I do think about the “sound” of language. Interestingly, I don’t just mean when you speak it aloud. The mix of syllables in a word and sentence. Sentence length. The vowels in your word choices. The multiple connotations of a word. The relationship of a set of words to other words nearby and elsewhere in the book and series. All this stuff goes on inside my head. It’s like a silent symphony.

The combination of words leave you with a feeling, don’t they. You can say the same thing a lot of different ways and get the “information” across, but HOW you say it has a musical quality. I care about this stuff. I can read a writer who sucks at plotting if he’s got this stuff. On the other hand, a technically gifted writer can plot like a demon, but if he’s got no musical soul in his words, I’m out. I’ve got a lot of ideas as to how and why this is, but it’d make this interview hella long. (And in some interesting ways, it ties back to some of your earlier questions.) Anyway, suffice it to say that: Yes, I think music has kind of attuned me in a unique way, and I’m glad of it.

Just because I really “get” what you’re saying about the musicality of writing (I particularly like the comparison to a symphony), what writers, for you, have this down to an art? Within (or outside) the fantasy genre, whose writing is like a silent symphony for you? Do you read these writers for pleasure, or for reference? Do you think each writer’s “symphony” is unique to him/her, or that elements can be emulated and used as inspiration?

Writers who, for me, nail this? Well, at the risk of sounding redundant: Stephen King and Dan Simmons. In some ways, this conversation is (at least in part) about voice. Picking up a King novel . . . well, you can have this whole great experience, this sense of returning home, by becoming immersed in his voice. Sometimes, his plots rock. Other times, I’m there for voice, and that’s sufficient. Simmons, too. My lord, there are times when he drops a line that—if you’re paying attention—are just shudderingly awesome.

Beyond these two guys, I could go back to Dickens. I think in some meaningful ways, he changed fiction. Period. More recently, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. LeGuin. Peter Beagle, as well. Interestingly, Peter and I met recently and got talking up some jazz. I like’s me some jazz. Beagle’s a big jazz fan, too. So, it doesn’t surprise me that I find his prose lyrical.

Richard Russo’s also awesome.

Funny thing: I wrote a song once entitled “Silent Symphony”. Man, that takes me back.

Anyway, I always read for pleasure. Of course, sometimes the pleasure is learning something from a great writer, as opposed to the tale at hand. And yes, their symphonies are their own. And, if you’re listening, they’re most inspiring!

And yes, I’ve absolutely thought of scenes while listening to music. Some are beautiful moments of story and song that I enjoy all by myself and then let go, never to relive or set down in print. I kind of like it when that happens. Others, I hold onto, and commit to paper. As a matter of fact, some of the climax to my entire series came while listening to an epic tune by a favorite band. I’ll leave that as a secret for now, though; I hope you don’t mind.

How do you sell a book? How did it work in your experience and how much interaction with other writers or beta readers did you have? How many people read The Unremembered before it got sold and how much did their opinions subsequently affect the eventual outcome? At what point of writing a novel/series do you realise “I’m going to try and publish this”?

The Battle of the Round (cover)Well, my story is kind of boring. I sent a query. The agent asked for samples. I sent samples. Agent liked the samples. Agent sent book to publisher. Publisher sent me a check.

On interaction with other writers, I have many writer friends. We stay connected through the interwebs, and in-person at the occasional con. I don’t go crazy with beta-readers. Just a few I trust. If I hear a lot of the same feedback, I’ll look at something—always trusting my gut most of all. And where the feedback is all kind of varied, I chalk it up to being subjective and move on.

And the point in the process when you realize you want to try and get your work published is at the beginning, and every single moment of every single day until it hits the shelves.

When it comes to plotting; how do you do it? Are you a Gardener or an Architect—or a bit of both? Do you plan your story down to the wiring and have the blueprints laid out just so, or do you take a seed, plant it, and let the rain and sunshine do the rest as you just write, write, write?

I’m a blend. I do an overarching outline—some scenes a bit more detailed, some a single word. Then, I get going. The outline gives me a general compass, saves me a lot of false starts. That said, I still make a full tonnage of mistakes. And really, a great deal of the discovery happens along the way. So, I feel like I kind of get the best of both worlds on that score.

Is The Vault of Heaven the only story kicking about in your head, or are there more novels/shorts/anything-at-all that you’re just waiting to commit to paper, or, is there that hidden first novel finished and discarded before you moved onto something new, waiting for its time to be revisited and revised?

Heaven’s no. I’ve several projects queued up behind The Vault of Heaven. And I’ve got three complete novels I did before The Unremembered was published that I’m going to take a look at when time permits—one horror novel, and two thrillers. Plus, I have a drawer full of short story ideas. No shortage of stuff to work on. Just a shortage of time to do so.

Have short stories ever featured in your writing process, whether to write up snippets, scenes or segments that didn’t “fit” in the wider plot, but were important side- or back-story elements, or as a way to broaden your publication portfolio before/during the writing and selling of your novel? If so, did you ever publish or try to publish any? If not, why not; Peter Orullian - The Unremembered (pic)are short stories just not important to you, or do you find them frustrating, primarily being a novelist?

Yessir. I published like ten or so short stories before landing the book deal. Then I’ve done several short stories set in the universe of my series since then. Gonna do a bunch more of those, too. I like doing these as a way to build out the universe, publishing historical moments that are too long for the novel, things like that. You can get four of these for free on my website right now, as a matter-of-fact.

As a writer, I enjoy forms of every length—whatever suits the tale.

– – –

As well as enjoying Peter’s short stories, you can check out The Unremembered, the first book of the Vault of Heaven and immerse yourself in a classical fantasy world, with lots of surprises along the way. Available from all bookstores with good taste.

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3 Comments

  1. BenGalley says:

    Great article Leo!

    And Peter, if you’re reading, I’m really like the style of your book covers. Coherent and elegant. Brilliant stuff! Looking forward to finally drilling through by TBR pile so I can get to yours.

  2. Rosalie says:

    Great interview Leo. Terrific questions and inspiring answers Peter. As Ben says, wonderful covers too.

  3. […] Fantasy Faction interviews Peter Orullian. […]

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