Today I am thrilled to have an interview with Courtney Schafer, author of The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City, to share with you! She also has a signed set of these first two books in The Shattered Sigil series to give away.
I recently read The Tainted City and absolutely loved it (my review). It contained exactly the types of things I like to see in a secondary world fantasy – great world-building, excellent characterization, an exciting story, magic that drives tough choices, and societies and characters that are not entirely “good” or “bad.” About halfway through the book, I knew I wanted to do an interview with the author to learn more about her and her writing. I was delighted when she accepted this invitation to answer a few questions, and I really enjoyed reading her thoughtful answers.
I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did. Please give a warm welcome to Courtney Schafer!
Fantasy Cafe: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Courtney Schafer: So many writers say they knew it right from earliest childhood, but not me! I always loved to read, and I played around with writing bits of stories on occasion, but I had a ton of other hobbies – and worse, I had this crazy idea that you shouldn’t ever move on to a new scene until you had the first one absolutely perfect. It always took me so long to get any one scene “right” that I figured I just wasn’t meant to be a writer.
But then, in the fall of 2007, some friends from work convinced me to try NaNoWriMo with them. (For anyone who doesn’t know, NaNo involves writing the first 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November.) I’d gotten pretty frustrated waiting for new books from my favorite authors to come out, and the idea for what would become The Whitefire Crossing was lurking in my head…so I thought, well, maybe it’s time to try getting a story down even if it doesn’t come out perfect the first time.
When I set aside perfectionism and gave myself permission to write a crappy first draft and fix it later…holy cow, I can’t even tell you what an epiphany that was. Freed from my inner editor, Dev and Kiran’s story poured out, and I realized: hey, maybe I can actually do this. Maybe I can keep right on going until I finish an entire draft, and then with enough revision and work, make the book good enough to share with others. Right then, I discovered just how badly I wanted to do exactly that – and a writer was born.
FC: What drew you to writing fantasy for your first book (if, that is, The Whitefire Crossing is your first written book instead of your first published book)?
CS: Fantasy is my favorite genre to read – I love it for its scope of imagination and freedom of storytelling – so I never even considered writing anything else. The genesis of the idea for The Whitefire Crossing came from thinking about the kind of novel I most wanted to read: a story with plenty of magic, intrigue, characters with secrets, adventure…and mountaineering, because I love that too.
FC: You’ve talked before about being a voracious reader. What are some of the books you’ve read that have taught you the most about writing and what have you learned from them? What are some of your own favorite books – whether you learned anything specific about writing from them or not?
CS: I haven’t read many books on the actual craft of writing (Stephen King’s On Writing is the only one that comes to mind), but I firmly believe that devouring thousands of SFF books helped me internalize many of the “rules” of writing. The novels of one author in particular taught me a huge amount about how to craft a story: Dorothy Dunnett’s two major series, the Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolo. The books are shelved in historical fiction, but I’d argue they qualify equally well as historical fantasy, thanks to clairvoyant mental powers in certain characters. Dunnett’s skill with both plot and characterization is unparalleled; I remain in awe of her talent, no matter how often I read the books. Other favorites: Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (his imagery is breathtaking), C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen (amazing, even prophetic ideas, plus one of the most convincing portrayals of a character with genius-level intelligence I’ve ever read), Megan Whalen Turner’s King of Attolia (a subtle, clever novel with devastatingly perfect emotional payoffs), and pretty much everything Emma Bull, Carol Berg, Patricia McKillip, and Diana Wynne Jones have ever written.
FC: Can you tell us anything about The Labyrinth of Flame or would it be too difficult to discuss it given that it is the conclusion to the trilogy?
CS: I can’t say much about the plot without spoilers, but I will say that I’m looking forward to drawing on my experiences canyoneering in the slickrock slot canyons of Utah. And Dev and Kiran are in for a hell of a time before the story’s over. (She says, rubbing her hands together with gleefully malicious authorial delight. Oh, this book’s gonna be so fun to write.)
FC: It seems that there is a lot of potential for other stories set in the same world as The Shattered Sigil – for instance, the mage war, Alathia’s founding, Sechaveh’s rise to power, Dev and Jylla’s past adventures, or even Ruslan and Lizaveta’s past adventures all sound like they would be great stories. Have you considered writing about any of the past events mentioned in The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City after this story arc is completed? Or do you have any plans for any books outside this world?
CS: I’d like to write some short stories set in the same world. I’ve got an idea for one set in Dev’s Tainted days (though Dev wouldn’t be the protagonist) that I’m itching to explore, and as you point out, there are plenty of other possibilities. I don’t have any firm plans yet for what I’ll do after I finish The Labyrinth of Flame – I’m definitely a “one book at a time” sort of writer. I suspect I’ll start a completely different series…maybe with a fantasy setting involving the ocean, since I love the sea and miss it quite a bit living in Colorado. (I used to scuba dive a lot during my college days in California.) But we’ll see…
FC: I liked how Ninavel and Alathia had completely different approaches to magic – mages were very important and could practice in Ninavel but magic was regulated in Alathia. Each place was aware of the other’s problems, but both ways had their advantages and disadvantages so it seemed balanced. Is there one side you are more sympathetic toward than the other? If so, which one and why do you feel that way?
CS: Heh, good question. As you say, both societies have some serious downsides. From an intellectual standpoint, I sympathize with Alathia’s attempts to create a safe, moral society…yet if I had to choose a place to live, then as a climber, I’d go for Ninavel. I’m not quite as much of a fierce individualist as some climbers are, but I’ll admit I put a pretty high value on personal freedom, even when it comes with significant risk.
FC: There are certain figures, such as Khalmet and Shaikar, who come up in Dev’s narrative quite often. I’m curious about the background of these and other figures. Can you tell us some about the world mythology and/or religions?
CS: The gods Dev references, Khalmet, Shaikar, Suliyya, and Noshet, are cultural imports from countries far to the south. Their worship was popularized in Ninavel by the city’s original mineworkers and builders, immigrants from Varkevia and Sulania who brought their religious traditions with them. Khalmet in particular is a big favorite in Ninavel, being the god of luck in a city where life is all about profit and opportunity. Of course, as a cultural melting pot, Ninavel features a whole mishmash of religions – but Dev refers mostly to gods out of the southern pantheon because his handler, Red Dal, was Varkevian in ancestry. Dev’s outrider mentor, Sethan, was raised in a different, far stricter religious tradition (the Dalradian church, which believes in a single authoritarian goddess), but the Dalradians are not evangelical at all in nature – no one from an outside bloodline can join the church – and Sethan rebelled against his upbringing, anyway, so he didn’t keep many of their customs.
As for the Alathians, they have a completely different primary religion, as the group who first founded Alathia was descended from immigrants who’d traveled to Arkennland from a country named Harsia that lies thousands of miles away, beyond the eastern sea. As Dev mentions in The Tainted City, the main Alathian religion features twin gods, both of them ascetic and ungendered, that Alathians believe maintain the balance of the world only on a grand scale; their gods aren’t interventionist in personal matters. Of course, whether you’re talking about Ninavel or Alathia, specific beliefs vary widely between individuals – and some people, like Ruslan (and therefore Kiran), don’t believe in gods at all.
FC: One aspect of the series that I particularly like is that magic seems DIFFICULT. Many fantasy books talk about study being required by magic, but often it doesn’t come across as that difficult with all these prodigies who pick it up naturally. Your books show that it is not easy – spellwork requires study and planning, and different types of mages do not understand types of magic that are not their specialty. In particular, I found the spell patterns that Kiran developed rather interesting. As a programmer, I kept wondering if it was similar to programming with a bunch of different pieces with their own functions that had to be pieced together in the correct way to create a bigger whole. Is there a real-world equivalent of spell patterns and did your background as an engineer influence the idea of spell patterns (or any other part of the books)?
CS: As an electrical engineer, I’d say blood magic is a lot closer to designing circuits than writing programs. Specifically, analog circuit design, which is a bit of a black art compared to the straightforward, logical world of digital circuitry. It’s been years since I last worked on analog circuits (as an image processing algorithm designer, I’m a Matlab code monkey now!), but I well remember the strange, compelling mix of intuitive leaps and intricate mathematical analysis that analog design demanded. Heh, and as a coworker once pointed out to me, the channel lines that blood mages lay out on the floor to shape their spells are awfully reminiscent of circuit diagrams…I guess I like engineering too much to leave it out of my magic entirely!
FC: I loved how all your characters seemed to be shaped by their pasts and viewed the world the way they did in part due to their experiences. How did you develop the past stories for the various characters? Did you plan out the past for each one or did it just come naturally?
CS: When I started Whitefire, I already had a good idea of the major elements of Dev and Kiran’s backstories, but I worked out specific details and timelines as I wrote through my first draft. For instance, in Dev’s case, when I got to the scene where he reveals a bunch of his past to Cara, before I could type a single word I had to write out a timeline for Dev’s entire life and figure out all the little details. When did he Change, how old was he when he met Sethan, how many years he spent in Tavian’s gang, how much time since Sethan’s death – not to mention, Sethan and Jylla’s entire backstories, since that influenced their relationships with Dev. Similarly, for Kiran it wasn’t until I wrote The Tainted City that I decided on exactly what the wall in his mind conceals. So for me, it’s kind of an organic process. Things that I figure out late in writing the first draft then get layered into earlier chapters during revision.
FC: Your books are each from two different perspectives, Dev’s and Kiran’s. Yet Dev’s point of view is written from first person and Kiran’s from third. Was there any particular reason for this or did it just seem natural to write them this way since Dev is more open and Kiran started out with secrets about his past? Did you think about changing the perspectives in the second or third books?
CS: The simple answer is that when I first started writing Whitefire, I wasn’t thinking about publication at all. I played around with both 1st and 3rd for Dev and Kiran, and found that Dev flowed best for me in 1st, and Kiran in 3rd…and since I was just writing for myself, I saw no reason not to continue the story that way. But why did one POV flow more easily than the other? You touch on one part of the answer – it’s a heck of a lot easier to keep secrets in 3rd person than 1st, and I wanted the full truth of Kiran’s past and identity to be a gradual reveal. The rest of the answer lies in my personal preferences as a reader. I adore 1st person narration for snarky, opinionated, pragmatic characters, like Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, Cat in Joan Vinge’s Psion, or Gen in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief. But for more introspective characters in desperate situations, I prefer the greater emotional distance of 3rd person – not only does it keep the narrative from bogging down in angst and analysis, but the extra distance can actually throw the character’s predicament into sharper relief for the reader.
For that reason, I haven’t ever considered changing POVs within the series. Kiran may not have quite so many secrets any longer, but he’s still angsty and introspective as heck, while Dev remains his sardonic, extroverted self – so I’ll stick with the POVs I prefer for those personality types. That said, who knows…maybe one day I’ll write a short story with the POVs reversed, just for fun!
FC: Despite his ruthless nature and definite leaning toward the evil side of the alignment spectrum, I loved Ruslan as a character because he was dark-hearted yet he wasn’t the stereotypical mustache-twirling villain whose every move and thought seemed dedicated to evil. He had a human side where he truly seemed to care about the well-being of those he considered part of his family, and I thought he had more depth than the common ruthless character because he wasn’t 100% selfishly black-hearted and uncaring. What were your goals in writing him? Do you have any favorite characters that fit the same sort of mold I just described?
CS: We have a tendency to demonize people who do terrible things. We want to believe that someone who slaughters innocents is incapable of feeling love and sympathy. I think it makes us feel safer to put them solidly into the category of the alien other. If true evil is the province only of people who are so damaged and twisted as to be incapable of human feeling, then we who feel love and pity and concern – surely, we could never do such things. Yet I think of the concentration camp officers who were said to be devoted family men, and fear it’s not so simple. With Ruslan, I wanted to explore some of that terrible dichotomy – how someone can be fiercely protective toward those they love, and yet view people outside their immediate radius of concern as little better than animals. I also wanted to make Kiran’s struggle to reject blood magic that much more gut-wrenching for him. It’s easy to repudiate a family who’s never shown you the least shred of affection. But when you know your family loves you, and yet you also know the depth of the evil they do…that’s a far more interesting scenario, storywise!
As for other characters that fit the same mold as Ruslan…I’m certainly far from the only SFF author who’s explored this territory. Brandin in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is a good example of the type, as is Gerald Tarrant in C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy. Or for a really disturbing take on the subject, try Susan R. Matthews’s An Exchange of Hostages, which focuses on an empathetic young doctor forced to become a torturer, who discovers to his horror that he likes it. (The torture scenes are not graphic, but Matthews gets so deep into the character’s head and the society is so horrifyingly dystopian that reading the book is a deeply uncomfortable, albeit thought-provoking, experience.)
FC: Although there are various romantic relationships in your books, I noticed no one seems to be married. Does the concept of marriage exist in your world or in certain cultures within the world (or did it at one time)? If not, what is it about the society that prevented marriage from developing?
CS: Marriage does exist, though in Ninavel it’s more common for people to enter into contracted partnerships such as Dev and Jylla did – the focus is legal rather than religious, in keeping with the worldly, profit-driven ethic of the city. In Alathia, ordinary people marry, complete with a religious ceremony….but not mages, who are expected to give their loyalty first and foremost to the Council. (Also, in my world mages can’t have children, so that removes one societal reason for marriage – though of course that’s not the only reason people might want to exchange lifelong vows!) On the Ninavel side, Ruslan and Lizaveta consider their bonds as akheli to run deeper than any ordinary marriage, so the very idea is irrelevant to them. So it’s not that marriage doesn’t happen in my world, it’s just that most of the major characters seen so far have cultural reasons not to marry in the traditional sense.
Thank you so much for answering some questions, Courtney! I really enjoyed learning more about you and the series (and adding more books to the ever-growing wishlist).
The Whitefire Crossing/The Tainted City Giveaway
Courtney has a signed set of The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City to give away! This giveaway is open worldwide so anyone can enter.
Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen (AT) fantasybookcafe (DOT) com with the subject line “Shattered Sigil.” One entry per person. This giveaway is open to anyone from any country in the world and a winner will be randomly selected. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Thursday, November 15. The winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the books to).
Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.
Update: Now that the giveaway is over, the entry form has been removed.