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Daniel Polansky Interview

With Daniel Polanskythe publication of She Who Waits in 2013, Daniel Polansky completed one of the most captivating debut trilogies to come along in years. Equal parts fantasy, noir and revenge, the tale of The Warden and Low Town built to an astonishing crescendo that left readers and critics alike singing the author’s praises.

Over the course of a few months in late 2013/early 2014, Daniel was gracious enough to entertain some questions about his process, influences and what comes next.

Describe how it feels to have She Who Waits out in the world. Whether or not it is the last Low Town novel, it certainly marks the end of this particular story. Is there a sort of postpartum depression that sets in after finishing a work of this nature? Or are you already on to the next tale to be told?

I’m happy that I got to finish the story, and finish it the way I wanted to, that feels good. But beyond that? It doesn’t take up a lot of my mental energy. I have a strong connection to whatever I’m working on at the moment, but when it’s done it’s done and I don’t think that much about it afterward. Too much still to do.

She Who Waits is an emotionally charged novel. Love emerges as a huge motivating factor for several of the characters. The tacit acknowledgement of these characters’ exceptional capacity for love—romantic, familial and platonic—shifted the entire foundation of the series for me. It was a brave decision to make, particularly since it wouldn’t have been difficult to cast the tale as one of pure revenge. For me, the seeds of this foundational shift were planted in the first novel, with the Blue Crane. Was that intentional, or did the story take that turn on its own?

You need to ground the character with some sort of identifiable human traits, he can’t be a complete sociopath, not for an entire novel and certainly not for three. We have to at least like him a little, even if we’re uncomfortable with doing so. The Warden isn’t a monster, in fact he has a very keen moral sense, and an equally sharp appreciation of the fact that he has not ultimately held up to it. Broadly speaking to me that was sort of what the series was about–this disgraced man trying (fitfully) to redeem himself.

The Straight Razor Cure (cover)This evolution of theme seems to have coincided with the evolution of your craft. As well-written as the first two books were, She Who Waits is on a completely different level. Was it, for lack of a better word, easier for you to connect with and produce such emotional material?

I don’t know that I’d put it like that, exactly. Certainly there were a lot of things I was holding until the last book, obviously with what made Warden decide to leave Black House. I wanted to set the stage thoroughly before pulling back the curtain, if you don’t mind me torturing the metaphor a bit. And you have to remember, the Warden is a deeply miserable man, virtually defined by his self-loathing. I think he kind of wants you to hate him, and he does what he can to obscure what’s decent about him.

I found the flashbacks dealing with The Warden’s rise to criminal power to be equally as fascinating as those describing his fall from Black House. The unrepentant cold calculation of it all served as an excellent counterpoint to the emotional heft of the Albertine storyline, as well as much of the “present” plot. How important was it for you to remind the reader that the Warden was capable of behavior so calculating and brutal?

Extremely. I wanted the Warden to be a legitimate anti-hero, not just a good guy who drinks whiskey and says ‘fuck’ a lot. He has some redeeming qualities but fundamentally he doesn’t have much by way of a moral core. I want you to be uncomfortable with him, the way Wren and some of the other more decent characters within the book are. I’m uncomfortable with him. That he has feelings of family towards some of his people, that’s all well and good, but fundamentally the Warden is something close to a sociopath, and I never wanted the reader to forget that.

Were westerns—particularly Unforgiven and Deadwood—influences on She Who Waits? The last sequence of events felt like the climax of a classic western, with a dollop of Heat thrown in for good measure.

I’m a big fan of westerns; definitely they’ve influenced parts of my aesthetic, though if there’s any one which seems most analogous to the end of She Who Waits it would have to be The Wild Bunch.

Tomorrow, The Killing (cover)I read in an old interview that you threw around the idea of calling the first novel Kicker of Elves. If that had happened, and the trend continued through the next two books, what Guided By Voices songs would you have used for the titles? (My picks are “Trap Soul Door” and “Forever Until It Breaks”).

Ha! Ha! Well, that’s not exactly true–the working title when it was just on my laptop was Kicker of Elves, but I never really thought we would go to print with that. Actually looking at them now I’m astonished at how many of these could actually work as titles. I’m going to say that Tomorrow the Killing would be renamed A Salty Salute, and She Who Waits would become A Game of Pricks. And those two were just off of Alien Lanes.

Incidentally, my older brother has long held the (I think) unimpeachable theory that “Kicker of Elves” is a reference to the 90s side-scroller Golden Axe, where in between levels there was this sort of mini-game where tiny elves would run by and steal your healing potions and you had to kick them to get them back. What do you think? Solid hypothesis?

Rock solid.

Your novels are published in the UK prior to publication in the US. Can you talk about how this came about? As a fan in the States, it can be incredibly frustrating. In the Internet Age, it seems like regionalization—in genres like fantasy at least, where the online community is both active and global—would be more harmful than helpful to authors.

The short of it is, Low Town/The Straight Razor Cure didn’t exactly fly off shelves, and the 2nd and 3rd books weren’t picked up. Beyond that, I think I’d be better off just keeping silent. No point in airing dirty laundry in public.

Believe me, it breaks my heart that the books are not available here in the US right now, I can’t even tell you. Hopefully more people will start taking a look at it and we can rectify the situation.

There has been quite a bit of debate on Fantasy-Faction regarding pirated novels. With the understanding that pirating books is ultimately a bad thing for everyone involved, do you have any opinion on US readers who download your novels upon their initial release in other regions, and then purchase the book through traditional channels when it is finally released in the US? It seems to me that an American buying your books through Amazon.co.uk or some other European retailer is actually hurting your chances at a domestic deal, because that is a person that isn’t going to bother picking up the US edition since they already paid a premium to have a copy imported. Any thoughts?

You know it’s a complicated question; honestly I don’t really have an answer. I would hope if people like it they would make an effort to pay for it, because I need that money. Dear god I need that money. I’m selling blood! I’m counting ribs! No I’m just kidding.

She Who Waits (cover)It seems, from other interviews anyway, that when you began the trilogy you eschewed a lot of the “recommended” methods and simply sat down and wrote, and then began revising and refining your work until it was up to your particular version of snuff. In your opinion, is there any value to having a fully fleshed-out world/characters/plot outlined or is getting something down on paper and refining more important?

Well, both are necessary, obviously. I would say that for people just starting out the most important thing is to cultivate the habit of writing, i.e. being able to sit down every day or virtually every day and write something, even if the output isn’t magnificent. As you get more experience with that you can start to see how to build things together in your head, but really outlining is an entirely different skill from actually being able to craft prose.

How did your writing process evolve between Low Town/The Straight Razor Cure and She Who Waits? With the third book, did you still spend more time revising than writing?

With The Straight Razor Cure I just sat down and started writing, which worked out better than I could have expected but was objectively not the way to write a book, especially a mystery novel. But I learned a lot from doing things wrong and now before I start out on a new project I (usually) have a more fully formed idea of where I’m going. Actually, now that I think about it, that isn’t always true—but it was true for Tomorrow the Killing and She Who Waits. Anyway. After the first book I had a much clearer idea of what I had to do, and so generally speaking there was less of a need for revision.

One final question—your publisher is very excited about the new series you’ll be unleashing upon the masses this year. I believe the elevator pitch Hodder and Stoughton used was, “Tolkien meets The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” What can you tell us—if anything—about the upcoming series?

It’s called Those Above. It started out with the idea that you could use the idea of elves, or a non-human sentient race or whatever, to discuss some interesting ideas about our shared conception of humanity, and Empire, and corruption and power and lust and lots of other things I guess. It’s bigger than Low Town, and more complicated, and I’m excited to see what people think about it.

I know that at Fantasy-Faction, we can’t wait to read it. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. I know that you have a vocal group of supporters at Fantasy-Faction, and we’re all looking forward to Those Above.

Thanks so much for reaching out to me.

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One Comment

  1. Great interview. Very excited to look into these when they’re on our side of the pond 🙂

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