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Jesse Teller Interview – Onslaught of Madness

Jesse TellerToday we are happy to welcome author Jesse Teller to Fantasy-Faction! Teller’s writing is the definition of epic fantasy. The stories are comparable to Steven Erikson’s Malazan in scope and scale, and likewise could be classified as “high grimdark” fantasy. So far, Teller has published eight books set on the continent of Perilisc, with plans for dozens more scheduled for release every six months for the next nine years. Then Teller plans to release stories set on a different continent on the same world. His newest release, Onslaught of Madness, is the first book in his new series, The Madness Wars.

On with the interview!

You post a lot of autobiographical essays on your blog, and from those I can see some parallels between the people you grew up with and some characters in your stories. Can you tell us anything more specific or explicit about these inspirations?

Liefdom (cover)Every writer is inspired by the people around them. That’s nothing new. We find ourselves vilifying our enemies and delighting in killing them in our books as well as making heroes out of the ones we love. I lived a very eventful life filled with many dramatic people. And when you read my blog, and you read my work, you can definitely see some crossover. I am in many ways Aaron the Marked, Sai Sibbius Summerstone, Father Morgan La Guy, Harpo and Knuk-nuk, but as you’ve said, so many people from my life find their way in there, too.

You have characters like Ty mentioned in my blog, who you can tie a direct cord to Jordai Stonefist. A lot of Dotley can be found in my biological father. My wife in Knuk-nuk and in Vianne. I’ve found a bit of X in Aaron the Marked. A bit of my mother in Aaron’s father’s ghost. The list goes on and on.

When I do release my autobiographical blogs in book form, many years from now, I think a lot of people will find characters from my books and characters from my life interwoven in each other, sharing traits and often storylines with one another.

Which of the characters in Onslaught have appeared in other books that are already available?

Legends of Perilisc (cover)This is a pretty extensive answer. I hope you’re sitting down. In Legends of Perilisc, you will find Clark, Ferallorn, Gris, Harpo, Kee-toe, Knuk-nuk, Saykobar, and Simon Bard. In Song, you’ll find Glimmer and Dotley. Hemlock has Peter Redfist, Jordai Stonefist, Aaron the Marked, Saykobar, Oak, Horsehair, Mast, Giggles, Helm, Avent, Glimmer and Dotley. Crown includes Dotley, Saykobar, Katherine Cherlot, Glimmer, and Sai. In Legends of the Exiles are Peter Redfist, Jordai Stonefist, and Erick Flurryfist. In Chaste, Sai Sibbius Summerstone, Raendel, Simon Bard, and Father Morgan La Guy. In Liefdom is Boxhead, Todd, Simon Bard, and Blythe. In Mestlven is Sai Sibbius Summerstone, Saykobar, and Seth Pollax. And in the anthology called Blackest Knights, you will find Peter Redfist, Aaron the Marked, and Jordai Stonefist. It’s an extensive list, and as you can see, some of those had recurring characters from many books. But this is a good indication of how my world works. You can start anywhere, the beginning of any series or any standalone, and everything leads to everything else.

Your website has a very helpful chronology for the Perilisc books, but you have not released these stories in chronological order. Would you care to explain the method behind the madness in this approach?

Mestlven (cover)This is very, very simple. We have series spanning decades, and while those series are taking place, other series are happening at the same time. I release a book every six months. So how frustrating would it be to get a book that starts a series and then I release two or three other books before I get back to the second book in that series? How about the fact that if I release them in chronological order, I would have four series going at the same time? This way also provides my readers with options.

If you want to read one Jesse Teller book, I have three standalones that are perfect for you. If short stories are your thing, I have one short story collection and one anthology edition. If you only want to commit to a trilogy, you can read The Manhunters series. If epic fantasy is your thing, and shorter books annoy you, then read The Madness Wars. But if you are the kind of reader who likes to obsess about a world, read the ins and outs of every story line, draw lines and fill in blanks, then my world will allow you to do that, too. As a reader of Jesse Teller’s work, you can decide your own level of involvement. 

Did you write the stories in chronological order, or as you thought of them?

Legends of the Exiles (cover)It was a combination of both. Like any writer, when you get started in a series, you’re super excited about it. You have a story to tell. You become devoted to that story and everything is right with the world. The beginning of the second book in a series is like coming home. But after the second book, and readers might not like hearing this, but after the second book, the writer gets tired of the story. They need a break. They’re no longer fired up about the series. At that point, usually a writer will get another idea and want to explore that idea instead of working with characters that have grown stale.

Well, what happened with me, I wrote two mountain books, each one 800 pages, and then I just couldn’t force myself to write the next one. I was exhausted with those characters and I needed a break. My work schedule being what it was, I was unable to take that break. So after two mountain books, I started The Madness Wars. It was a fresh series, it was brand new, and I was excited about it. I was able to hop back and forth between the mountain and the Madness, but after two Madness books and three mountain books, I was just exhausted with those stories. So I wrote the first Manhunters book, Song.

A pattern had emerged that has carried me through my career (so far). I’d hop back and forth between series, but once I had written two books of my new series, I needed a break, so I started the next. Sometimes that meant writing it in chronological order, and sometimes that meant jumping forward years ahead in time, to a completely different time period. When you write like that, you find yourself guessing at how other series will finish and writing the result of things that haven’t happened yet. When you go back in the timeline, you have to take those things, that future, into consideration, and really explain to the reader how those two storylines are connected. It’s challenging. It’s frustrating. It’s exciting. And it’s monotonous. But after a certain point, you start to realize that no one story is isolated. Once you’ve written this many books, you start to realize it is all just one story. One story with many moving parts and no real beginning, and no real end.

You include some fabulous and highly detailed worldbuilding. One of the things I found really interesting about the nation of Tienne was how everyone simply accepts nobility as their rightful rulers, and people—both the supplanted nobility and Rextur and his command staff—are really offended by the power grab by the merchants.

Song (cover)Yep. It’s based on the idea that the common man is okay serving someone they have been told is better than them, but merchants are just rich commoners, so they are reviled. Meanwhile, nobles understand that their true power comes from the people. This is just one country though. Other cultures in my world have varying class systems.

I appreciate the range of character types and characteristics among your nobility (from truly “noble” to utterly venal).

The book is about leadership. Nobles were born and trained to lead. Merchants were born and trained to take money from people. Peter was born to lead everyone. It’s in his blood, in his training. Rextur was born to defend and lead the people but his destiny was perverted into making him a weapon to be turned on those same people. The whole book is about leadership. It’s a major theme in all my work.

What other themes interest you and which you like to explore in your fiction?

Hemlock (cover)I have this theory that if you don’t have something to say, you shouldn’t be talking. That theory extends to my writing. I use my writing as a tool to talk to my sons, who are still too young to read my work. I use my writing as a way to talk to people about the issues that concern me. I lived a violent and abusive past. When that happens, you learn there are certain things that are important in the world, and those things need to be studied and talked about. So in my work I talk about the big ones. Fathers’ relationships with their children. That’s a topic The Madness Wars is drenched in. Leadership, strife between social classes, honor, dignity, violence, gender. I like to talk about how a man treats a woman and how a woman treats a man. I like to talk about how a man or woman can be weak at the same time they are strong, can be lost at the same time they are leading. If you have nothing to say, you should keep your mouth shut. But with the life I’ve led and the lessons I’ve learned, I feel an imperative to get involved in a discussion. 

You mention an “Escape” in your website chronology and it’s also mentioned in the part headings of Onslaught. Can you give us a clue what the Escape is, and why it’s so central to your storytelling that it’s a turning point in your world’s chronology?

Crown (cover)The Escape is the moment everything goes wrong. I don’t want to get into it too much because I don’t want to give too many spoilers. In the book Song, there’s a prison break, and some of the people who read Song confused the Escape with that prison break, but they are two different events.

The Escape is the moment that leads to a massive apocalypse. It starts off slow, but when that apocalypse is played out, the world as the reader knows it has been utterly destroyed. At that point, my work will exist in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, where all the gods have either been killed or have run for their lives. Civilizations have crumbled or been knocked down, right and wrong have become interchangeable. And the hope that the world was once suffused with becomes so fragile. That world is what we’re headed for, but we have decades of releasing two books a year before we can get to it. That future begins at the moment of the Escape.

I read on your blog that Peter Redfist is “your messiah”? What do you mean by that?

Well, Peter Redfist is suffused with the power of youth. The question is simple, what if we raised our children on purpose? Set out from the birth of the child to meticulously craft a man or woman to change the world or save it. Peter Redfist is the realized potential of every baby who’s ever been born. Trained and taught everything he would need to lead and save nations. A student of the world and its teacher. I use the word messiah in a secular way. There’s nothing divine about Peter. He is simply the hope of the world as symbolized by the hope we all feel when we look at our children.

In Onslaught, why do you introduce readers to Peter through Aaron’s eyes?

Onslaught of Madness (cover)A perfect man is boring to read. A perfect woman is boring to read. We want our characters to have flaws. We want to be able to see ourselves in them. Now, Peter does have his flaws and he makes mistakes, but when I was writing this book in particular, I was not interested in looking at the world through Peter’s eyes. I was interested in watching him work and being commanded by him. Aaron is interesting because Aaron is soiled, just like so many of us feel we are. And he is looking up at this bastion of strength and hope and light, and it feels ultimately unattainable. Now Peter in the future does become a point of view character. We do get to see the world through Peter’s eyes, but only after the pressure on him grows and he is faced with the impossible. But that’s not for years.

Is there a favorite scene or chapter in Onslaught? Tell us why.

A lot of my favorite chapters in Onslaught, my favorite scenes, have to deal with a moment of crisis. Rextur is taken away from his mother at birth. He never knew her, never suckled from her breast. He knows very little about her. Later in the book, when he is being tempted by a supernatural force, she takes the form of his mother, and he sees the woman who gave birth to him for the first time, and a fleeting glimpse of a kind of love he was never shown. He sees arms that never held him, and a young woman who was abused and victimized for his creation. At that moment, this mighty man, capable of destroying entire nations and enslaving hundreds of thousands of people, sees for the first time a glimpse of his mommy, and all he wants in the world is to be held by that illusion. I think of all the moments in Onslaught, all the world-changing events that happen in that book, that one paragraph in probably my favorite.

How about a favorite event or character in all your work (after Peter, if he’s your favorite)? Tell us why.

First, I’m gonna chastise you for the position you’ve put me in. I’ve written 4.7 million words. Making me choose a favorite is cruel and unusual. We could talk about the last scene I wrote, just the other day, where Drowned is negotiating the life or death of two girls with their sibling. That sibling is offering herself up to save her two sisters, and negotiating peace with Drowned, the rising king of Drine. And she’s six years old.

We could talk about my favorite moment from my first book, Liefdom, where one fairy dedicated to peace and beauty is cutting the hair of a warrior fairy dedicated to defense and destruction. In that moment, his love for her is so fragile and to him more terrifying than enemies that tower over him and outnumber him. A simple word misplaced by her has the power to utterly destroy him as he kneels before her while she cuts his hair.

Or we could talk about my favorite moment in all the work I have released, which would probably be a trek through Hell by two young teenage brothers, where we get to see the diversity of landscape and the variety of torments in the land of damnation.

I gave you three, because how could you expect me to give you one?

What do you want readers to take away from your work?

There is an overarching theme in all my work. With the childhood I lived, and the abuse I suffered, at a young age I became intimate with the idea of despair and lived in it for almost twenty-three years. I started going to therapy, examining everything I had learned, weighing its truth or its lie, and rebuilding a new man. And I learned, in that time, the absolute vastness and the sheer overwhelming immensity of hope. Those two things are at war in all my work. My work is a study of hope and despair. Everything boils down to hope and despair.

My desire is that readers in trouble can find that hope in the sea of despair. I write characters that I needed when I was a kid, characters who understand the things I was going through. I think about the times when I faced defeat, the times when I faced suicide, self-disgust, all of these things, and I think how badly I needed Aaron the Marked in those moments, to feel as though I was not alone. To give me hope that there was another outcome. It is my belief that one day someone will read this work and it will give them hope. And maybe pull them back from the brink.

We would like to thank Jesse Teller again for talking with us today! To learn more about his work you can visit his website and follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

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