Brian Staveley is the author of the Unhewn Throne trilogy whose second book, Providence of Fire is going to be released by Tor in about three weeks. The first installment The Emporer’s Blades, dealt with the death of the emperor of a sprawling nation in a very well-conceived fantasy world. His three children, the heir who has been training as a monk to prepare him for the rigors of leadership, the other son who has been training to become a member of what has to be the most badass military unit I’ve ever read about in a swords and sorcery novel, and the daughter who basically has to run things in a capital full of corrupt and avaricious power players who don’t take her very seriously, all gradually discover that the emperor’s death was not a simple murder, but the beginning of a carefully-crafted conspiracy to bring down their kingdom.
Anyway, The Emperor’s Blades was definitely one of the best books I read in 2014 and I was pretty excited when Brian Staveley agreed to an interview. Coming from an academic background with a strong interest in poetry, Brian Staveley definitely brings a unique perspective to his writing. One of the first things that the reader will notice is that unlike alot of other personality-driven fantasy novels where the setting itself is not one of the main characters, is that the societies, religions, and history are all very well thought-out and not simply your generic medieval Western European culture with wizards and gnomes and whatnot thrown in for good measure, which helps keep the writer from having to do any serious world-building of their own. Brian Staveley also maintains a blog with a ton of great resources for an aspiring fantasy author. OK, enough from me. Let’s move on to the interview:
-For the readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, would you mind describing your personal background and what influenced you to become a professional writer?
I wanted to be a writer since my first work, Anty’s Avinchir, a four-page story about a small ant who has an adventure, then returns home because he misses his parents, complete with illustrations. I needed to work on a few things, however, things like spelling, if I was ever going to make a go of it professionally. I read fantasy, history, and science fiction voraciously as a kid, all the way through high school, then got sidetracked by a growing interest in poetry. Fortunately, after years (and a graduate degree) working in poetry (which I still read pretty religiously) I found my way back to fantasy. I wanted to redo Anty’s Adventure as my first public work, but everyone told me I needed to write something longer than four pages, so I came up with The Emperor’s Blades.
-What are you looking for your readers to get out of your books, and how do you make sure that your novels have the effect that you want?
It’s my fondest hope that a reader might enjoy the books enough to get lost in them. I love hearing from people cursing me because they missed their stop on the subway, or slept through their alarm, or called in sick to work because they couldn’t put down one of my novels. Beyond that, however, I have no goals. A reader will find what she finds in a book, and everyone will come away with something different. That’s part of the fun of it.
-How would you describe your path to publication (i.e. agenting, self vs. traditional publishing, ebook sales, whatever you feel to be relevant)?
I took just about the most traditional path available. I wrote The Emperor’s Blades, shopped it around with agents, got a lot of silence and rejection, a few very encouraging replies, and finally an offer from the incomparable Hannah Bowman. She sold the series to Marco Palmieri at Tor, and we were off to the races. There are a lot of routes available to writers these days, and no single path is best for every writer. I’d be remiss, however, not to acknowledge that this traditional model has worked very well for me. My books would be worse without the input of both Hannah and Marco, and I’m immensely grateful for all the hard work everyone at Tor has put into the series, from gorgeous cover art, to a really strong publicity push.
-You have a lot going on in your action scenes, but they are also very vivid and easy-to-follow. How do you make sure that your readers have a clear picture of what is going on?
When I was just starting out, I tried to write action scenes as though I were going through the choreography for a kung fu flick: Then he ducked. She feinted high, then kicked out low, her foot angled to the side…
This was a disaster. The scenes were long, confusing, and boring as hell. The trouble with that blow-by-blow approach is that books are not movies; each medium has its own strength. While movies can capture the speed and grandeur of epic fight scenes, books are better at dealing with the struggles and emotions of characters, and this is where I try to keep my focus, even when I’m in the middle of a 10,000 word battle. We need to know who’s stabbing whom, of course, but the real meat of the story lies in the thoughts and struggles of the characters stabbing and being stabbed.
-What do writers need to do in order to create a vivid and memorable world to set their novels in?
I lean very, very heavily on my knowledge of real-world history. I taught history for ten years, and find myself going back to that well over and over, sometimes to look in detail as specific characters and events, but more often to remind myself just how complex and messy human societies actually are. For instance, it’s easy to create an imaginary religion for a fantasy novel. What some writers forget, however, is just how messy religion can become. Even small religions have rival factions, conflicting texts, incompatible theological doctrines – and, of course, every religion evolves over time. It’s easy to create a fantasy world in which Triala is the main Goddess and she is served by a group of devotees. It’s more plausible if there are competing interpretations of her “miracles,” groups of scholars vying to decide which miracles are even legitimate, etc. History is good at reminding us just how messy a created world ought to be.
-How would you describe your writing process?
Get up, go to the coffee shop or library, write a minimum of 2000 words. Sometimes this takes a little over an hour. Sometimes I’m still working at midnight. Getting that word count is non-negotiable.
-What do you do to make sure that your settings and plots stand out?
While I love working with both setting and plot, I’m most interested in character. Setting and plot exist to challenge those characters. I try to take Valyn, Adare, and Kaden to places that make them confused, terrified, and angry. The Kettral Trial in Hull’s Hole, for instance, takes place in a cave precisely because the cadets have never trained in caves. You never want to put a character in a setting or situation that they feel fully capable of handling.
-Do you have any future projects that you would like to tell your fans about?
I’ve just finished the first draft of the third book in the Unhewn Throne trilogy. After this series is done, I’ll almost certainly be writing one or more stand-alone novels in the same world, perhaps following some of the secondary characters that my readers have come to really enjoy.
-What do you know now about writing that you wish you knew starting out?
I’ve finished three books now, and in each case, the final month involved daily panic and self-loathing. I was convinced that the book in question was a pile of steaming shit: disjointed, dull, cliché. Thankfully, my wife is there to remind me that I always feel this way, that the book is probably pretty good, and that even if it’s not, I have time to revise later. So far, I’ve always been proud of the final product, but I’m certain I’ll forget that fact when I’m in the final month of my fourth book. Some things you just can’t learn.
Thanks again to Brian Staveley for agreeing to the interview. Here are some links: