Today, it gives me great pleasure to turn this blog over to James Enge – fantasist, educator, and all-around nice guy. The only thing that pleases me more than playing host to a talented author is playing host to a talented and genial author (I suppose playing host to a talented and genial author willing to buy our old massage table would be too much to hope for. Or is it…?).
Anyway, before I turn things over to James, I just wanted to give you an update on a former guest to this blog – actor Mike Dopud. Fans can catch him on the season 2 premiere of Durham County at 9:00 p.m., tonight, on The Movie Network and Movie Central. Mike will also be guesting on FOX’s Mental this Friday, July 17th, at 9:00 p.m. Check it out.
I now turn things over to author James Enge as he weighs in on work in progress, what makes a good book, and, of course, Fodor’s Guide to Middle Earth…
T. McCarthy writes: “I have only one question for James: What’s next and when will it be published?”
Tammy Dixon writes: “My only questions for Mr. Enge are “When is your next book coming out?” and “Will you continue with the Ambrose story?” You left plenty of opportunity for more of this story and I would love to visit this world again!”
Sparrow_hawk writes: “Questions: Are you planning more books set in this world? If so, will any of these characters be back? I hope so.”
JE: Thanks for the more-than-flattering interest. The next novel in the series is This Crooked Way; it’ll appear in October of this year, and Merlin and Nimue both show up in pivotal roles. The third book (The Wolf Age) is slated for October 2010. It’s a Morlock novel, but it puts him in a radically different setting than the other books.
Lou Anders writes: “One thing I’ve wondered and never remembered to ask, and so might as well ask here publicly: I know what happens to Morlock next and next after that (i.e., the novels THIS CROOKED WAY and THE WOLF AGE), but where does Ambrosia/Hope go? Do we see them again?”
JE: I know more about their past than their future (taking Blood of Ambrose as the present, as in Rene’s question below). It looks like Hope will be in charge most of the time in the future, and she’s less of a troublemaker than Ambrosia. Of course, she won’t really be able to avoid trouble if I want to inflict it on her, and it might be interesting to see how she reacts…
Rene writes: “Question(s) for James Enge:
You’ve written stories set pretty distantly in Morlock’s future (if BoA is the present.) Did anything in the novel surprise you or affect the future narrative?
JE: Two significant character deaths surprised me. I’d rather not say any more, except that I figured both those characters would survive the novel and I’m still a little appalled at how I finished them off. I also thought Morlock would ride Velox into the final confrontation with the Big Bad, sort of a counterweight to his appearance against the Red Knight. Morlock knew better, though–one of his more irritating habits.
“Do you have any plans to write more about Ambrosia and Hope? (Loved them both.)”
JE: I have a couple short pieces about their earlier career that might coalesce into something larger–the stories don’t really feel complete by themselves.
“And not really a question, but I enjoyed the omniscient POV. I see more of that in YA than adult fantasy lately, & thought it was a) well done and a nice change from tight 3rd, and b) an homage to the pulp fiction of last century (well aware I might be making up that 2nd point!) Thanks for doing this! I look forward to it.”
JE: I figure the thanks should flow the other way–to Joe and to you guys.
Anyway, I have been reading a bit in YA lately (chiefly Diana Wynne Jones) but pulp is a deeper influence (especially stuff from Leiber and Vance). Also still older stuff, like James Branch Cabell. In one of his fantasy novels, Figures of Earth, he almost never lets the reader into his hero’s head. It’s never, “Dom Manuel thought this and wanted that.” It’s always, “Dom Manuel said this, and did that.” It can be a distancing effect, but it’s also liberating for the reader: we get to make up our mind about Dom Manuel, rather than having the author tell us what to think. So I sort of tried to steal that.
Artdogspot writes: “For James Enge:
“I enjoyed your book and thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. I did have a number of questions about how you decided to approach some things in this story.
1. I liked the fact that you chose to reveal back-story for these characters and their world throughout the book rather than write a prologue to explain these things at the beginning. What went into this decision?”
JE: I’m glad you liked the book–and, believe me, it’s a pleasure to answer questions about it. (Might soon turn into a vice, in fact.)
About prologues… the more of them I read, the less I like them. I think some writers confuse the process they go through (in creating the world, the characters, the backstory) with the process the reader goes through. If the reader feels like he or she is reading “Report on Planet X” or “Fodor’s Guide to Middle Earth” then the writer has blown it somehow. A successful beginning is more like introducing two people. If you want Bob to meet Shlomo, you don’t start by reciting Shlomo’s educational background, vocational aptitudes and credit history. You say, “Bob: meet Shlomo. Which one of you is buying the next round?” (Or something like that. I’m still working on that whole social skills thing.)
“2. When you write within the fantasy genre how do you determine how much magic is ” too much” when using it as it plot device?
JE: Sort of by feel. Magic can never be just a get-out-of-jail-free card for the hero(es), or it loses its impact and wonder. But fantasy novels without magic don’t appeal to me strongly (as a reader or a writer). I’m interested in the possibilities of the impossible.
“3. Since this is a great fantasy story filled with almost entirely original characters, cities, lands, and cultures – why did you decide to use a well-known fictional character, Merlin, in the storyline?
JE: It may have been a mistake, partly because so many people have such definite ideas about Merlin. They’re sure that T.H. White’s Merlin is the real one–or the Merlin in Excalibur –or in Morte D’Arthur, or whatever. All those Merlins are great, but Morlock’s father is a very different and more sinister breed of cat.
But, if it’s a mistake, it’s one of long standing. Almost from the time I conceived of Morlock, he was the son of Merlin and Nimue, sort of a magical counterpart to Arthur’s Mordred. Earlier versions of Morlock’s biography were much more heavily Arthurian, and when I purged that material I considered changing Morlock’s parentage, too. But it just didn’t feel right–Schnezzlewick the Mighty (or whatever) just didn’t have the thump of Merlin Ambrosius.
Besides, I have some lingering notions about what Merlin was really up to in Britain during the Dark Ages, and they might be the core of a decent story someday.
“4. There seem to be a lot of current fictional child-characters who tend to be more courageous and/or “plucky” in a way that Lathmar is not. Although his character does become less of a “sack of beans” over time, he seems quite vulnerable throughout most of the story. What went into your decision about this direction when you created his character?”
JE: I didn’t want Lathmar to be a Chosen One who was predestined to succeed; maybe I overcompensated. There’s a sort of inner story and an outer story in the book. The outer story is the threat to the realm by the Protector’s Shadow and his various pawns. Morlock is the hero of that story. Then there’s the story of Lathmar’s coming to power, where the empire is a metaphor for Lathmar’s ability to run his own life–or inability, as the case may be. Lathmar has to grow into becoming the hero of that story, because his growth is what the story is about. And the two stories meet in Morlock and Lathmar’s relationship–the ersatz father/son thing that’s happening there.
“5. Morlock seems to be the flawed, reluctant hero. What drew you to create this type of lead character? He seems to take the long view on most things, and also sees beneath the surface of most plots hatched by the evil Protector/Adept.”
JE: I’ll go pretty far (as reader or writer) to avoid a Mary Sue/Marty Stu type of character. Those stereotypes of perfect people are powerful because of all the wish-fulfillment that goes into them, but I don’t think they’re ever very convincing. Real people get grumpy; they have warts; their feet hurt sometimes; they get scared; they do the wrong thing.
Morlock is the character I’ve written about the most, so he’s been heavily, perhaps harshly, formed by those notions. I’m not sure if he takes the long view or if it’s just that he doesn’t have much that he cares about anymore. That can look deceptively like wisdom. On the other hand, he certainly cares about more stuff than he’s aware of (or is willing to admit).
“His sister Ambrosia, on the other hand, appears to be more direct, always ready for a fight. Yet near the end, it is revealed that she is the better “seer”. Why is this revealed at the end of the story? Will this and other unresolved things be explained in any forthcoming sequels? And, will we see Wyrth again now that he has become a Master?”
JE: I wanted to reveal Ambrosia’s power as a seer at the end for two reasons. One, it just felt right for Lathmar to find out at the story’s end that there was more to his Grandmother than he’d thought–and less. All of us learn that kind of stuff about our caregivers at various points in our maturation. The other thing was, I didn’t want to reveal Ambrosia’s power until I had revealed her even more crucial weakness: her silent battle for dominance with Hope.
Some stuff I am holding over for the sequels. Morlock and Merlin, for instance, haven’t seen the last of each other. And Morlock and Wyrth will definitely cross paths again, though it might not be for a while: Wyrth needs some time to find his place as a master of making before he confronts his old boss.
Michelle writes: “Questions for James Enge:
“How do you see the relation of this world to Earth? Is the reference to Latin and inclusion of Merlin meant to indicate some past connection between the planets?
JE: Yes, that’s deliberate. Morlock’s world isn’t really a planet, but it is connected to Earth and other worlds through a planar interface that those-who-know call the Sea of Worlds, (because it can be navigated if you know how).
“How did you approach writing the book from the world-building side? Did you write the appendices ahead of time, during, or after the story?”
JE: I strongly feel that worldbuilding and storytelling are radically different processes. They can even happen side-by-side–the writer can realize midway through a story that the world has a second sun, or that the Magical Purple Powder of Destiny is made of the tears of laughing clowns not the barking of angry beagles, or whatever–the demands of the story can change the details of the world as you write. But there’s still the world on the one hand, and the story that’s told in it, on the other. When writers confuse them and inflict all they know about a world on the innocent reader, infodump pollution may result.
I knew Morlock’s world pretty well before I wrote Blood of Ambrose –too well, maybe. The appendices seemed like they’d be useful for people who’d never visited that world before. Maybe I should have included a map, too… some readers have felt the lack of one. There will be a map in This Crooked Way: Morlock travels a lot in the course of the story and a map seemed like a basic necessity for the reader. (Chuck Lukacs drew it, and also did the splendid interior art of the book.)
“Who is your favorite character in the book?”
JE: It’s hard to pick a favorite among characters I’ve become so involved with. Wyrth shows the greatest range, I think. Ambrosia and Hope seemed the most original to me… right up to the point when Heroes premiered, a couple years ago. Then every time Ali Larter came on the screen I screamed, “You have ruined my LIFE!” But I’ve gotten over that! I’m okay now! So I tell myself, and my therapist.
But, honestly, I have to admit my favorite is Morlock. His weaknesses and strengths make him a magnet for interesting kinds of stories. Plus, he’s kind of an ornery old bastard and I have a weakness for characters like that.
“Thanks for a great read, James, and for recommending it, Joe. The first BOTM selection I’ve read on my iPhone Kindle app.”
JE: Thanks! Glad to have helped you blaze that trail. I’m sure Morlock would really rock on all the gadgets we have in our society.
KellyK writes: “Hello James. Loved the book. Some questions –
1. You obviously enjoy the fantasy genre. Have you always been a fan? Do you trace your influences as far back as Tolkien or were you influenced by less obvious sources?”
JE: Tolkien was the big turning point for me (as for many, I know). But even before I read Lord of the Rings I was hooked on mythology, especially Norse mythology but also Greek and medieval stuff. And as a teenager I could never get enough of the great fantasists who came out of the American tradition–Leiber, Vance, Zelazny, Le Guin. Actually, I still can’t get enough of them. Detective fiction is another thing I keep reading and rereading, especially Hammett, Chandler and Sayers. (Chandler would have hated someone linking him with Sayers, so I do.)
“2. One question that always comes up when we do these Q&A’s, and a question I find the most interesting, has to do with the writing process. What is your writing process like? How do you attack a story? Do you outline or do you make it up as you go along? Are you a morning writer or a night owl? Background music or deathly silence?”
JE: I’m not systematic at all–I write when I find a corner of time to work in, and when the compulsion is on me. The compulsion comes after I’ve been daydreaming about a story so long that it has to get written or some sort of internal damage will result. I daydream a lot, so the compulsion is pretty frequent. On the other hand, I would never get up before noon if it were up to me, so lots of my work gets done at night by default, if not by scheduling.
I don’t usually outline, but I do usually keep a file of notes and drafts for use later in a story. The longer the story, the bulkier and more outline-like that file is apt to be. I often have music playing as a write, but never anything with words in it. If there’s a lyric playing, I can’t put sentences together; there’s some kind of interference in my speech center.
“3. How did you come to publish Blood of Ambrose?”
JE: After I sold a couple of stories I decided it was finally time to go back and try a novel again. (I’d made several earlier attempts. They really put the “ail” in “failure”; I’m lucky none of them saw the light of day.) I wrote Blood of Ambrose as a calling card for Morlock, his world and his rather screwed-up family, on the assumption that most people wouldn’t have read anything about him before. Then I started sending it out places. It went precisely nowhere until I secured an agent (Mike Kabongo of the OnyxHawke Agency), and then Lou Anders bought it in a matter of weeks–really fast, after all that waiting.
Thornyrose writes: Questions for Enge. … What aspect of writing a fantasy novel most appeals to you? Creating the characters? the World? figuring out the twists and turns to keep the readers off balance? …. When writing, do you start with the goal in mind, or does the story and/or characters move in their own direction and bring you with them? Thank you very much for an excellent read, and for taking the time to take part in Mr. M.’s blog”
JE: Thanks for the kind words and the questions. I think what appeals to me most about writing fantasy is the chance to experience, if only in imagination, impossible things. The flying horse in Part One of Blood of Ambrose is a good example. To some people, stuff like this might be just a decoration; for me, it’s connected to what the story is really about.
I almost always know where the story is going to end–if I don’t, I can’t seem to make much headway on it. Beginnings are harder: it’s easy to start too early (“Five centuries before our story begins…”) or too late (after some crucial action that will have to be reported in a flashback). In between these two goalposts, there’s a lot of room to maneuver, and sometimes I find the characters shaping the narrative in a way I didn’t consciously intend.
Sparrow hawk writes: “More questions for James Enge. I’m in awe of authors who can write books that are so entertaining and original. Others have posted some very good questions and I don’t have anything else to add for now; I’ll just wait for the answers.
Oh, maybe I do have one or two: How does the mix of teaching and writing work for you?”
JE: Teaching and writing go together pretty well, I think. Especially because I teach mythology (among other things), I’m constantly telling stories and thinking about stories: why they work and why the sometimes don’t. And the material gives me this huge shopping center of dreams to shoplift ideas from. Morlock’s last move in his battle with the Protector’s Shadow, for instance, was lifted from Hercules’ wrestling match with Antaeus.
Trevi writes: ”A couple of questions for James Enge if its not too late.
I thought this was a great book from start to finish. There was never a point where I was bored or my mind drifted. The story was so compelling that I read the whole thing in three sittings.
I would like to know what the author considers a good book. Not a favorite book but what actually makes a good book. What does he set out to do when he puts pen to paper or finger to laptop key.
JE: Thanks! It might sound monotonous, at this point, but I can’t say too often how much I appreciate the kind words.
I’d say a good book is one that makes an emotional impact. There are a bunch of different ways to approach that goal, and there are things to do in fiction other than moving the reader. But if the reader isn’t moved, the book can’t succeed, whatever else it has going for it.
“Mr. Enge apparently got his literary feet wet writing short stories. I want to know how he views the different forms and whether he has a preference between the two.”
JE: I’m still feeling my way on this. I like the scope that’s available in a novel–a hundred thousand words is a lot of room to make stuff happen, to generate complex and even contradictory characters, to go to interesting places and do interesting things. On the other hand, the very narrowness of a short story can be bracing, forcing you to stick to essentials, to the immediate. So I like them both–and the episodic novel is my attempt to have it both ways, I guess.
Rereading all of the above, it seems to add up to a lot of words. Here’s hoping they were worth your time to plow through. Thanks again to Joe Mallozzi and to all of you for this lively discussion; it’s definitely given me a lot to think about as I tackle my current and future writing projects.