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James Wolanyk Interview – Schisms

Today we have the pleasure of interviewing James Wolanyk, author of The Scribe Cycle. His latest book, Schisms, was released in the US by Rebel Base Books in February of this year and in the UK by Kensington Publishing Corporation in July. Let’s get right into it!

First, would you please tell us a bit about yourself?

James Wolanyk

Well, I was born in Boston but I’ve moved to three countries for my “real job”, which involves being a homeroom teacher and marketing coordinator for international schools. My deepest calling, if you could label it that, definitely belongs to the themes found in theology of all sorts: Eastern, Christian, pagan, you name it. I think all of these traditions (and in fact, our social values as a whole) reflect essential truths about the world and our “true nature”.

Seeing as school isn’t the place to be delving too deeply into these beliefs, they just started to bleed through into my writing. At first it was a mild theme, but gradually it has become something prominent and vital to the overall message I want to leave behind. The Scribe Cycle is my first full series to be published, as well as my first foray into fantasy. More than anything, I aim to capture “truth” in writing, regardless of whether it’s fantasy or literature. The truth of a reality that is often painful, the truth of human warmth and connection, the truth of war. I’m also an enormous film geek, so most of my writing has a strongly cinematic quality to it, whether intentional or otherwise.

At what point did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Ever since I was 4 or 5, I enjoyed telling stories to my family and whoever would listen. My mother transcribed a few of my stories, but within a few years I was writing on Microsoft Word for hours at a time. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading D&D manuals or creating elaborate scenarios with Star Wars figures. In essence, there wasn’t a concrete moment at which I decided to become a writer. Writing was something innate for me, something vital to make sense of the weird stories running laps in my head.

Describe the journey to your first published fantasy novel?

Scribes (cover)Getting published, as most writers can tell you, is an arduous process. I was 23 when I finally landed an agent, but it wasn’t a first-book-miracle deal by any means. I’d probably drafted and written four books before Scribes, which was the manuscript that actually landed me the agent deal with Lindsay Mealing (all praise to her!). When I wrote Scribes, it was part of a capstone creative writing course at my university, led by Andre Dubus (who most people know from House of Sand and Fog fame). At that time I’d been worn down by years of rejections, but Andre really pushed me to finish the draft and send it around. His confidence in my writing was one of my largest motivators. The battle wasn’t over once Lindsay agreed to represent Scribes, of course. It took nearly a year of her tireless prodding and poking for Kensington to greenlight the manuscript. It was (and still is) a tough sell of a book—literary and genre fiction don’t share a huge reader base.

For new readers can you give a brief outline of The Scribe Cycle and how it begins?

The Scribe Cycle is, at its core, about a world in which magic carries none of the luster that we might expect. Magic is new, wild, dangerous. Each person carries a wellspring of magic within them, but only a select group of women—known as scribes—are able to read the sigil patterns on their flesh and create magic-granting scars (called runes). Once a person’s sigil is traced onto their skin, it grants them invulnerability in every sense. But this power is mostly bought, sold, and stolen by the leaders of fractured provinces and mercenary companies. There’s no reward for the scribes, only the vague promise of survival. The story itself opens with Anna, a young girl living in the ruins of a massive civil war with her family. Anna’s a talented scribe, but as per her father’s demands, she keeps these “gifts” out of the public eye. That all changes, however, when a masked tracker gives her a horrible choice: Make his band of war criminals immortal, or watch her younger brother die. Things just worsen from there!

Scribes is one of my favorite debuts in the genre. It’s dark and often uncompromising, its war torn world is bleak and quite terrifying, yet somehow there is a hopefulness in Anna’s character. Did you have a message in mind while writing the novel?

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in noting the contrast between hope and bleak, tooth-and-nail desperation. In many ways, the book was a reflection of growing up in a time that seemed saturated with the same tones. Things might be picture-perfect in one region of the world, but at the same time, you’re bombarded with images of drone strikes, famine, human rights violations in every form. Many people around me, especially growing up, held callous views about foreign countries and “their problems”, while also celebrating the very policies that led to those issues. That dissonance was jarring to me, and it definitely wormed out into the book.

Spirituality is also one of the largest topics that the books explore, especially as the series progresses. I’ve always been fascinated by the tenacity and convictions of living beings, and most people who stumble across my social media know that I’m a massive advocate of meditation. As a consequence, naturally, that activity appears time and again in the books as a vessel for transformation. In many ways, Anna’s story is one of transcending mortal fetters such as pain, fear, hatred, et cetera, and seeking that perennial state of oneness.

The use of carved ruins that can create invulnerability as a commodity is a fascinating Magic system. How did you come up with the concept? Was any research involved?

The decision to use runes, in retrospect, is probably linked to my love of Slavic and Baltic cultures. Pagan practices in these regions really emphasized the power and inherent divinity of symbols. I didn’t do much research to actually develop the idea, but I certainly thought about the implications of a system that literally develops as the series progresses. In many books, the protagonist is traveling a well-worn path by learning new spells. In contrast, I wanted “the mind” to be the central agent of learning and expanding new abilities. Anna herself is something of an engineer in developing new runes.

Reading the book I was often swept away by the beautiful prose. Stylistically who would you say your biggest writing influences are (fantasy or otherwise)?

James Wolanyk - Schisms (cover)

First of all, much appreciated. I tend to read far more literary fiction than fantasy, although I’m also a sci-fi junkie. William Gibson, James Sallis, Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and Kim Stanley Robinson all have distinctive voices that have shaped my own. I wouldn’t call myself minimalist by any means, but I believe in the beauty and cruelty that comes from being concise in the right places.

On the other side of the coin, who were some of the authors that specifically sparked your interest in the fantasy genre?

Well, it’s hard to escape the greats on this one. JK Rowling was my first introduction to fantasy, and Tolkien came soon after that. Clive Barker certainly has a place in that tapestry. Frank Herbert (specifically for his writing in Dune) is probably the single greatest inspiration for the themes

and general tone of The Scribe Cycle, but there are dozens of authors that informed my writing and style along the way.

If I read fantasy nowadays, it typically has something bold to offer—works by China Miéville, Josiah Bancroft, so on and so forth. I love novels that make me feel something, even if it’s the pit in my stomach.

Anna is a very strong, determined and at times edgy heroine. In a genre that is often criticized for its portrayal of women, how important was it to you to create this strength in your central character?

While initially writing the draft of Scribes, I wasn’t overly conscious of how I portrayed female characters. I certainly had my bone to pick with the vast majority of female representation in literature (fantasy included), but I don’t think I set out to tell a young girl’s story specifically as a response to those grievances. Midway through the draft, however, a close female friend of mine remarked that it was surprising to see a man tackling a girl’s perspective. It struck me as odd, given how little thought I’d actually paid to that issue.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by strong women in my life, and their experiences—whether observed or explicitly told to me—undoubtedly formed the bedrock of Anna’s psychology. There was never a question of following or defying specific genre tropes related to women. My only loyalty was to truth, and to be more precise, to the truth of how Anna would react to the brutality around her.

Several reviewers have criticized her selfishness or callousness, which I understand, but I can’t help but feel that they’re missing the mark. In my mind, a flawless protagonist is a dishonest protagonist on the writer’s part. People are a product of their environment, for better or worse. Their actions almost always make sense when placed in the proper context. Even history’s worst mass murderers believed that they were heroes, whether vilified or lauded.

What takes up most of your time when not writing?

Scribes (hand)Most of my “free time” is occupied by working as a fifth grade teacher in a Latvian international school. Beyond that, as you might’ve already surmised, I absolutely love meditation and reading about spiritual traditions. In fact, I’ve often joked about becoming ordained as a Buddhist monk. (An idea that my girlfriend does not find nearly as compelling as I do.) Cinema is probably my second great love, and if I ever find the courage, I’d love to try my hand at producing screenplays someday. Beyond that, I now feel obliged to fabricate an intensive workout regimen and book-a-week reading schedule, but I’m not that brazen.

Aside from your second book, Schisms, which was just released, what’s next for you in the coming year?

At the moment, I’m putting the finishing touches on the third book, Scions. It’s going to feel weird to be adrift without a deadline over my head! In the world of writing, things are going to be fairly fluid. I’m currently drafting a post-scarcity sci-fi novel revolving around a religious AI construct’s collapsing vision of utopia. Put simply, you can imagine the Old Testament being thrown into a blender with Mad Max and Dredd.

We’d like to thank James again for speaking with us today! To learn more about The Scribe Cycle you can visit his website or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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