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INTERVIEW: Ben Chandler, author of 'Quillblade'

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

This week on the blog I'm featuring just a few of the amazing authors that are appearing at the Speculative Fiction Festival this weekend - 16 March 2013 - at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney.

Today my guest author is Ben Chandler, the up-and-coming  author of 'Quillblade.'

What is your latest novel all about?
My latest novel is a Kung Fu / Western mashup based (very, very loosely) on an ancient Chinese legend about 108 outlaws who had some amazing adventures. It (my version) tells the story of a young girl named Mei, who is burdened with a crushing fate, and the 108 heroes who are destined to help her achieve it. The gods have forsaken the war-torn Cursed Lands, and only the Blessed Maiden can save the people from centuries of fighting. Mei heads to the lawless Frontier to recruit her army of 108, but the Frontier holds more dangers than she imagines, and her 'heroes' are not exactly what she expects . . . Readers can expect Kung Fu monks, slow-talking cowboys, magic stones, and a rather peculiar mystical dragon.

How did you get the first idea for it?
I love the Frontier. The 'Wild West' is such a wonderful imaginative space, and I've been wanting to tell stories about it for a while. Not the real wild west, mind you, but a fantastic version of it. That point on the map labelled 'here be dragons' but with plenty of ain'ts and y'alls thrown in - that's the place. I also love Kung Fu action films. These genres blend so well together, but a genre mashup is hardly a place to start a story. I stumbled across the legend of the 108 outlaws quite by accident and fell immediately in love, not so much with the actual tales, but with the notion of a small army of one hundred and eight individuals, each with their own interests and personalities, all striving towards a common goal. I've been wanting to tell a story based on that concept for about as long as I've wanted to write a Kung Fu / Western mashup. Then one day the image came to me of a crystal palace. I mean a literal crystal palace. One where the walls are perfectly clear so that no one living inside of it has any privacy at all, ever. Who would live here, I wondered. It occurred to me that this was exactly the sort of place you might stick someone you didn't trust, perhaps someone of whom you were even a little bit afraid. So, I had all of these different elements, each of which belonged, I was convinced, to a separate novel, but then something wonderful occurred - I met Mei (by 'met' I mean 'imagined', but you get the idea). Mei was a young girl living in a crystal palace. All of the other young girls lived there, too, because the patriarchal rulers of the Cursed Lands feared a prophecy handed down by the last Dragon Sage - that one day a Blessed Maiden would rise up to lead an army of one hundred and eight heroes, and together they would conquer the Cursed Lands and pave the way for the return of the gods. So there it was. A lone girl in need of an army. A lawless Frontier. Kung Fu. Oh, and the aforementioned rather peculiar mystical dragon. It all just seemed to come together after that, but Mei was the key. 

What do you love most about writing speculative fiction?
Oh, so much, really! I guess, in line with my answers to earlier questions, I love the frontier-iness of it. That question, 'What lies over that hill over there?' truly fascinates me in speculative fiction. Maybe over that hill is a lake with a sea serpent living in it. One who was trapped there aeons ago and worshipped as a god before being forgotten, only to be found one day by a very special brother and sister. Or maybe not. Maybe there's a village over that hill, one in which a young queen will be born with the power to see the future, but only five minutes before it occurs, and each time she uses her power she loses a lock of her hair. Or maybe not. Perhaps there is a crater there, left over from some great calamity that caused all magic to be expended in an effort to protect the world from destruction at the hands of a man who was supposed to have saved it. Or maybe not. That's what I love about writing speculative fiction. Anything - anything - could be lying just over that horizon, on the other side of that hill, and I can't wait to find out what it is!

What are the best 5 books you've read recently?
Always a hard question to answer. Here's a list, and in no particular order:

Eon, Alison Goodman (I'm late to the party here, but I loved Eon - very much looking forward to getting into Eona!)

Midnight and Moonshine, Lisa L Hannett & Angela Slatter (Caveat: I'm not yet finished with this collection. I'm taking my time and savouring each story, as should you.)

Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth (I'm not just saying that because this is her blog! I LOVED it - bring on Wild Girl!)
(Bless you and thank you, Ben! )

Buffy: Season 9, Joss Whedon and many others (After what felt like a mixed bag with season 8 - the first season to transition to the comic book format - season 9 feels more like the Buffy we all know and love.)
The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien (A re-read - the twelfth? the thirteenth? Who keeps track any more? - prompted by all the things I didn't like about the new film!)

What lies ahead of you in the next year?
A busy year! I'll be doing a few appearances and some school visits in and around SA, NSW, and VIC, and in April I'll be running a boot camp for teenaged writers who want to write fantasy. I'm about to finish a brand new manuscript, one which is very different from anything else I've written. It's not a book for children or teens, for a start, though it's still squarely in the speculative fiction genre. I'm also about to start re-writing a project I finished a couple of years ago about a boy and his very peculiar dog. That one's been brewing for quite a while and I'm finally ready to get back into it. Oh, and I'll be turning thirty this year. I'm told this means I will finally be an adult, and that there is no hope for reprieve. I will attempt to counteract this by watching even more cartoons and pointing out that that's exactly what they said about turning twenty.

BOOK REVIEW: 'The Extinction Gambit', Book 1 of The Extraordinaires, by Michael Pryor

Monday, October 22, 2012

Take one young man, raised by wolves and trying to break into showbiz as a magician.

Take one young woman, white-haired and pink-eyed, with a passion for creating gadgets.

Add Rudyard Kipling, writer and creator of Mowgli, the wolf-raised boy of The Jungle Book.

Add an assortment of angry Neanderthals, a profit-obsessed businessman in a bowler hat, and creepy immortal creatures who inhabit the bodies of stolen children. 

Throw in a gruesomely murdered housekeeper and a collection of robotic rats.

Set it in the foggy streets of London in 1908, with a quick dash back to the Great Fire of 1666.

Mix together violently.

The result: a fantastical, surprising, adventure-packed steampunk novel, The Extinction Gambit, Book 1 The Extraordinaires, by Michael Pryor. 

I loved this book! It was funny, fast-paced, packed full of twists and turns and stomach-dropping lurches sideways and downwards. The dialogue is witty, the clothes rather dashing.  And I loved the albino heroine with her ever-changing array of spectacles. I also loved the unexpected time travel back to the Great Fire of 1666. There was an awful lot crammed into this one book – it could easily have been three! 

As I said introducing my interview with Michael Pryor last week, ‘it’s the sort of roller-coaster ride where all you can do is hang on to your hat and see what amazing and surprising places the story will take you. This would be a fantastic book to give a teenage boy who loves gadgets, magic tricks, and high adventure - which is most teenage boys I know.’

Other reviews you may enjoy:


INTERVIEW: Michael Pryor, author of 'The Extraordinaires'

Friday, October 19, 2012

I remember hearing people talk about 'steampunk' novels a few years ago and thinking that they didn't really sound like my kind of books, since I don't like cyber-punk and I don't like books about machines.

However, I also don't like any form of literary snobbishness and so when a steampunk book came my way, I read it with interest. To my delight, I really loved it. The book was 'Laws of Magic Book 1: Blaze of Glory' and the author was Michael Pryor. I ended up reading all six books in the series, and going on to read other steam-punk titles by authors like Richard Harland and Scott Westerfeld. Its a genre of fiction filled with dash and verve, re-imagining life at the turn of the 19th century with magic, machines and lots of mayhem.

I still don't think 'steampunk' is the right way to describe this genre of fiction. I prefer Michael Pryor's term 'gonzo-historical adventure' which he uses in the interview below, while talking about his new steampunk adventure, 'The Extraordinaires'. I've just finished reading it, and its the sort of roller-coaster ride where all you can do is hang on to your hat and see what amazing and surprising places the story will take you. This would be a fantastic book to give a teenage boy who loves gadgets, magic tricks, and high adventure - which is most teenage boys I know. 

Michael Pryor (thanks to Random House Australia website)

Have you always wanted to be an author? 
Yes, but only in a vague way. As a young person, I loved reading and I liked writing and I thought being an author would be a fine thing, but it was really only later, in my twenties, that I knuckled down and truly went about seeing if I could do it. I console myself for my tardiness by telling myself that I was training for the job of writer by reading as many books as I could. Vital stuff, that preparation.
Tell me how you first came to be published
One day, I decided that I had to see if I could do what I’d been thinking about doing for some time. That day, I sat down and wrote a short story. I sent it off and it was published. Over the next few years I wrote and published a dozen or so short stories, and then it was time to gird the loins and see if I could write a whole, proper novel. It took me a few years, with lots of fumbling about and mis-steps, and the day I finished it  I received a writers’ newsletter. On the front page was a little note saying that Hodder Headline was looking for YA Spec Fic manuscripts, and that was what I’d just completed. I sent it off and after some discussion and rewriting, it was published. Joy!
Can you explain the steampunk genre for  me? 
The term ‘Steampunk’ came about in the 1980s, when three writer friends were playing around with what they called gonzo-historical adventures, stories which took the flavour of Victorian/Edwardian stories and added speculative elements.  Eventually, one of them coined the label ‘Steampunk’, where he was riffing off the hot SF of the time – ‘Cyberpunk’. In a nutshell, I’d say that Steampunk stories are either set in the Victorian/Edwardian era, or they are set in world where these eras effectively didn’t end. They include bizarre and outlandish technologies or magic, most often hidden from the general populace. They often feature cameos by real historical figures or by literary characters. The manners and the morals are usually consistent with the formality and class consciousness of the times. Oh, and they feature some slashingly stylish clothes, too. Think of the stories of Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, but with a modern, knowing sense of irony. Now, from its early days, Steampunk has grown and gone sprawling in all sorts of directions, appropriating and meshing with all sorts of sub-genres, but at its heart it has a sense of the Victorian/Edwardian era not as it was, but as it should have been.
What was your very first seed of an idea for 'The Extraordinaires'? 
My first Steampunk series was the six book ‘Laws of Magic’ adventure. This was set in a world remarkably similar to our own, with nations such as Albion, Gallia and Holmland teetering on the brink of war – but it was a make-believe world, nonetheless. When I was finishing the last book (‘Hour of Need’) I was already thinking of nailing my colours to the mast and setting a new Steampunk series in the real, historical world. This immediate pre-Great War period appealed, and in doing my research I found myself intrigued by the first London Olympic Games in 1908 and the great Franco-British Exhibition, of which the games were effectively a part. It was a rich and heady time, and I was drawn to it. But how was I going to have the magical/SF elements I love if I stuck with real history? That’s when I had the idea of the Demimonde, the world that lies side by side and underneath our own, unperceived by ordinary folk. It’s  a world of tunnels and hidden underground warrens, where lost legends and ancient conspiracies dwell, where the outcast gather and the outlandish is commonplace. When I had this side by side structure in place, with the obvious potential for characters going back and forth between these two very different existences, the concept was starting to shape up. The seed was growing.

I loved your characters - the wild boy Kingsley and the poised and confident albino girl Evadne. Tell me how you came to invent them.
I knew I wanted my main character to be a young would-be stage magician, as I’ve long been fascinated by stage magic, its practice and its history – so much so that I undertook a course in stage magic. It was enough to tech me the basics, and to teach me that I’d never be a professional sleight of hand artist, but it did send me off in many useful research directions. I needed more, though. I was tossing around possibilities, thinking of ways to make him even more interesting, when I heard a radio presenter mentioning that sometimes his teenage son behaves as if he’d been raised by wolves. It hit me between the eyes. A thousand possibilities assaulted me, as I immediately thought of Mowgli, and India and the duality of nature. Kingsley was falling into place.

As for Evadne, our albino genius inventor, she was fun to create, too. One of the challenges of writing in this mode is that the role of women in society, though changing, was still subservient to men. How, then, to have a feisty, outspoken female character who is still true to the times? I overcame this by making her as unconventional as possible. She lives in the Demimonde, which allows her freedoms that ordinary society wouldn’t. She does, however, have a career on the stage, as a juggler and entertainer. Again, the theatre world allows a certain unconventionality that the ordinary world doesn’t. She is also fearsomely intelligent and staggeringly rich, thanks to her inventing devices and holding valuable patents on them. Oh, and she’s an albino, something of which she’s proud rather than ashamed. When I put all these things together – as well as a dark secret in her past – I had the sort of female character who could use a sabre while juggling five balls and offering a witty observation about our hero’s clothes sense. A lot of fun.
I also loved the cameo by Rudyard Kipling! Have you always been a fan of his writing? 
Kipling is a deeply unfashionable writer, mostly because he’s seen as an apologist for Empire and colonialism. Like many observations, it does oversimplify things, but it’s true that Kipling was a man of his time and a great supporter of Britain.  I first came across him when I was young, through the Cubs. The Cub movement used Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ as a basis, with the fables of the wise animals and the headstrong boy Mowgli (raised by wolves!) as the backbone for the entire outlook of the organisation. I read the stories and loved the exotic landscapes, the adventures and the sense of the other that Kipling captures so well. I read more of Kipling’s vast output as I grew up, and I was distantly interested in the way his views changed as he lived through extraordinary times, but it was really only when I wanted to make more of Kingsley, my main character, having a background that was remarkably like that of Kipling’s most famous character, that I re-engaged with Kipling’s work. He was a fine, fine storyteller, with a superb narrative sense.
How many books do you imagine will be in this series? 
Three books in this series. I’m just putting the finishing touches to Book 2, which is due for an April release.
Why Neanderthals? 
I’ve always been fascinated by Neanderthals, with the whole idea that humanity had close cousins  - as close as bonobos are to chimpanzees – living side by side with us as recently as 25,000 years ago. I’d been reading about the recent work done by scientist looking at Neanderthals, and some of the startling conclusions about their intelligence, tool-making abilities, social structures and language, and I thought they might be interesting to work into a story. I wondered if it was possible to take a character who was planning to exterminate humanity as an act of revenge for the way humanity had reduced her people to a dying few – and to make her sympathetic.
I love setting myself writing challenges like that!

More about Steampunk: 

If you liked this interview, you may enjoy my Interview with Nick Earls


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