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Chris Evans Interview

Chris EvansChris Evans, author of the Iron Elves series, has once again delved into the realms of fantasy, this time with Of Bone and Thunder. This story of war and camaraderie takes place in a conflict that echoes the Vietnam War if it had been filled with dragons, magic, and dwarves. Sound interesting? We thought so too! Luckily Chris was nice enough to take some time from his busy schedule to talk with us for a bit. So without further ado, on with the interview!

What have you been up to since the completion of the Iron Elves, with Ashes of a Black Frost?

In the three very long years since the end of the Iron Elves I wrote my next novel, Of Bone and Thunder, and my first nonfiction book, Bloody Jungle, about the Vietnam War. I didn’t mean to take three years, but life has that annoying habit of getting in the way. I now write full time as I resigned my position as military history editor at Stackpole Books last year. I’m still adapting to the transition. I was a military history editor for thirteen years so to leave that behind wasn’t easy. On the plus side, I do travel more, and I am working at writing more, too.

Of Bone and Thunder gets described as a bit of Apocalypse Now meets The Lord of the Rings. How do you feel about this?

Of Bone and Thunder (cover)Chagrined, but only mildly. I think most people understand that marketing employs some hyperbole in order to get eyeballs fixed in their direction. The point to using comparisons like Apocalypse Now and Lord of the Rings (or Full Metal Jacket meets Game of Thrones as a reviewer commented) is to give the reader a framework, something to latch onto. OBAT is very much the melding of the Vietnam War experience in a deeply realized fantasy world. In that sense, the marketing term is dead on. If you’re at all familiar with Apocalypse Now and LOTR then you get a feel for the book immediately. Now whether that’s for you is another question entirely, but in one sentence you have the general sense and sensibility of the novel. There will be blood, magic, drugs, chaos and a redemptive ending, if not a cheery and sunny one.

Your interest in military history clearly feeds the story and characters in the new book, with a great focus on the mechanisms of combat, the interactions between soldiers and how individuals cope with war—so just how much research goes into so detailed a book as Of Bone and Thunder?

I’ve never really sat down to go over the time spent, the books read, the veterans I’ve spoken with, but the short answer is a lot. A massive amount. But it’s not really about the technical details as those are all modified to fit the fantasy setting. It’s really about the vibe. I wanted this to be a novel that oozed Vietnam out of every page while still keeping its fantasy heart.

That said, those technical details are a huge help in making the world come to life. For example, instead of an M-16 the soldiers of Red Shield are equipped with crossbows. And just like the M-16, their bows have to be cleaned and maintained in order to work, and sometimes even then they don’t. And just like in real life, weapons are altered and improved to meet new threats. I wanted to show that evolution from the crossbows to their uniforms to the dragons they fly on and the thaumics they employ. The characters were developed much the same way. They are forced to adapt to a strange environment and to a conflict they are ill-equipped to understand.

You posted this picture to your Facebook, citing inspiration for the main regiment of Red Shield in the book. What about this photo speaks to you? What elements of the relationships between soldiers and each other, and soldiers and war, become the grounding inspiration for writing them in a fantasy world?

12th Inf, 4th Inf Div, Vietnam War Hill 530 by Earl A. Young IVI love everything about this photo from the jungle covered mountains in the distance to the shattered trees, the darkening clouds, the exhausted troops and the general sense of unending misery that is kept at bay by intense camaraderie born of shared suffering. They’re tired, they’re only equipped with what they can carry and most of all, they look isolated and truly alone. It evokes so much of what I wanted to do in the novel. Even down to showing a mixed-race unit, another big element I explore in OBAT.

I love that you’ve not ditched the staple fantasy races of dwarves, etc. Do you think your writing will always include these now almost-forgotten and discarded races? What keeps you coming back to good old dwarves?

It wasn’t easy. I took some, um, let’s call it constructive suggestions along the way that perhaps the dwarves could disappear, but I resisted. Dwarves rock (pun intended). I also think dwarves have been unfairly maligned in much of fantasy. They are every bit connected with nature as elves, but they don’t get credit for that. Their traditional home has been literally inside mountains. They mine the very rock and craft almost everything from it. How is that not living off the land? If they are so terrible why is it that elves and humans are always portrayed as being eager to trade with them and marvelling at their craftsmanship? Hypocrisy, thy name is elf!

And there be dragons in this book. I really didn’t know how much I wanted to write dragons until I got into the novel. And I mean write them in a way that spoke to me to far more than all these magical super beasts we’ve seen. I wanted to see them as beasts of burden. Large, ungainly, often treated poorly and ultimately rendered into parts when their usefulness has reached an end. That’s why they’re called rags in the book. They are every bit as disposable and replaceable. Well, to most, not all.

Why do you think fantasy writers avoid the traditional non-human races in lieu of essentially presenting the same races under different names, or avoid non-human races altogether? Just why are elves and dwarves so unfashionable in a time where diversity is what we want? Surely the non-human is diverse in and of itself?

A Darkness Forged in Fire (cover)It seems that every generation has to rebel against the last otherwise how do you distinguish yourself from your parents? Fantasy is no different. These days, it seems fashionable to bash Tolkien. I do get that. I was never a fan of Tom Bombadil. Or the songs, those interminable songs. So I’m not advocating that all fantasy should be full of elves and dwarves, but the idea that such fantasies can’t be just as “serious” as those featuring only humans is ridiculous.

I think what I find most interesting in this modern movement to eschew anything that looks too traditional in fantasy is that it’s become what it purports to rebel against. It’s like everyone is now scrambling to imitate the massive success of Game of Thrones the way everyone has been chasing Harry Potter. It’s no different than when writers were striving to recreate LOTR.

I do get that traditional fantasy harkening back to Lord of the Rings is well worn ground. It’s no wonder so many writers threw up their hands at writing one more aloof, European, runway model elf or another boisterous, beer swigging axe-waving portly dwarf with a hint of a Scottish accent. But I remain convinced the fantasy we’ve known with elves and dwarves and dragons can be so much more than it’s been without having to denounce it or remove all traces of traditional fantasy from it. To argue otherwise is to – I humbly submit – show a lack of imagination.

What is your favourite thing about Of Bone and Thunder? Why?

This is such a hard question! But I’ll take a stand and say that it is the rags (dragons). I approached them as if they were both beast of burden and aircraft. In this world, they are little more than large cows or horses. Their level of intelligence is about the same. They don’t talk, cast spells, horde gold or boast a genius IQ. At the same time, I wanted to explore the mechanics of what makes a dragon tick. I read several accounts of fighter pilots and chopper pilots in Vietnam to get a feel for what it would be like to ride a dragon into battle. And I wanted to figure out how you tended to a wounded dragon. I came up with a mix of veterinary medicine and brick work.

Most of all, I loved writing about the rags in flight. It’s one of the reasons I opened the book with a scene that takes place entirely in the sky.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book and how did it differ from your experience of writing the Iron Elves?

The Light of Burning Shadows (cover)I think the hardest part was dealing with the pressure of expectations, both mine and that of everyone else. I wanted to write my best book yet, and I knew my readers and publisher would want the same. I lived with that for three years. Ultimately, I was able to relegate that pressure to the sideline and focus on the story, but I could never entirely banish it. I don’t want to get to a point where I can simply crank out a book to a formula. That would be a terrible fate. I approach each book as a challenge, and one that I am not entirely sure I am up to. It’s been like that from the beginning and I sincerely hope that never changes.

Was there a defining moment in the whole of Of Bone and Thunder where you really felt you’d nailed the echo of the Vietnamese war? A singular thing that spoke, at least to you, unmistakably of the setting?

For visual impact that would probably be the scenes of dragon fire which clearly echoed the use of Napalm. Emotionally, that might be the tunnel scene. It encompasses a lot in a literal and figurative small space.

Since it’s such a relevant topic at present—and certain scenes/themes in Of Bone and Thunder approach the issue from different angles, and the natural military chauvinism does make brief appearances, only then to be offset by fresher attitudes—how do think your female characters will be received? Do you think you achieved all you set out to with their individual story arcs/presentation?

My approach with all the characters in Of Bone And Thunder was to let them be who they wanted to be and not try to force them into being pawns in the plot. The female characters were no different than the male in that regard. I’m always interested in strong female characters and so I set out to create women with drive as opposed to damsels in distress. That they butt up against the historic chauvinism of the military was destined to happen which gave me the opportunity to explore how they would react to it. Based on the reviews thus far, readers have been all about the characters experience without singling out male or female, so it appears to have worked. As for achieving all I could with the characters, the answer is no, but then that’s always the answer. I’m not a huge fan of the neat ending with every plotline resolved. All of my surviving characters have futures whether they be hopeful or grim.

The ways in which the soldiers deal with pressure and their tense environment is one of the things I liked best about Of Bone and Thunder. It reminded me somewhat of an excerpt of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (an extract I was once handed by a teacher to discuss building character traits/showing a lot without saying much). Did you assign each character their own set of idiosyncrasies or did it happen fluidly whilst writing? Were any characters specifically inspired by real life veterans more than others might have been?

The Things They Carried (cover)That’s very cool that you mentioned The Things They Carried because I had a similar experience. I attended Clarion East in 2000 and the instructor, Sean Stewart, gave me an excerpt of the book as well. I was blown away by the economy of writing while still conveying deep insight into the characters. Historian Barbara Tuchmann is another writer able to say volumes in a few words and I tried to do that with this novel.

Each character developed from one base idea – farmer, raw recruit, hunter, father, religious etc and as I wrote, who they were flowed from that. And that’s when the complexity of each character grows and the contradictions start to appear. I try not to set too much in stone ahead of actually writing and instead apply a more “on the fly” approach.

What was the hardest thing about writing Of Bone and Thunder? Was there anything that was drafted and rewritten more than other chapters/scenes?

I always spend massive amounts of time on the opening. Typically for me, that’s the last part of the book that I finish with. It sets the mood and the direction so I agonize over every sentence, probably too much so. The technical elements are the easiest. Whether it’s figuring out the mechanics of a crossbow or a rag in flight, I can write that all day. Dealing with emotions, especially ones more subtle than straightforward rage, for example, definitely take me longer to write.

Do you think Of Bone and Thunder will remain a standalone novel or become part of something larger?

It’s definitely possible. The focus of the novel was on the experience of the characters which takes place in a relatively small geographic area. That leaves a lot of room to explore should I choose to down the road. If I do another book in this world the next one will likely involve the dragon flocks and take place in a different locale. Now that I’ve explored a fantasy inspired by the Vietnam War a new book would most likely focus on a big, wild adventure.

Of Bone and Thunder (detail)

We would like to thank Chris again for taking the time to talk with us. Of Bone and Thunder is out now. You can read more about it and his other works on his website or follow him on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Mike says:

    Excellent interview. I especially enjoyed Chris’s response about how fantasy has grown since Tolkien. Couldn’t agree more!

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