The Next Big Thing

Jonathan Moeller has tagged me for The Next Big Thing. I am nearly as susceptible as a dragon to flattery (although, unlike Smaug, I am painfully aware of the weak points in my armour); what is more important, I am stuck on the all-important cover copy for the Octopus, so I can answer these questions as a sort of rehearsal.

The strict instructions call for me to tag five more writers, but Jonathan has sneakily tagged most of the people that it would occur to me to tag. Instead I shall ask the great-hearted and talented Sherwood Smith, who fights against the Deplorable Word under the name of Sartorias, if she has a work in progress that she would like to put through the procedure. Sherwood is generally too reticent about her own work, and could stand to be less self-effacing about it. (I humbly beg your pardon, Sherwood, if you’ve already participated in this Next Big Thing thing, but if you have, I missed it.)

Now that I’ve broken the rules all to smash, let us get on with the battered residue and answer the questions.

What is the working title of your book?

I always make up sardonic working titles that imply that my work in progress is rubbish, just to discourage me from talking about it excessively instead of writing it. I got this idea from a story that went the rounds on the Internet grapevine some time ago.

There was this tech company, it seems, whose engineers were sick and tired of having all their projects announced prematurely by the over-zealous sales force under their code names, generating hype (and impatience) that the actual technology could not live up to. So they struck back, and gave their new project the code name BARF. The sales force could not bring themselves to blab to the customers about a project named BARF, so the engineers were able to work in peace.

In this spirit, my first completed project (Lord Talon’s Revenge), which was published this past August, went by the working title of ‘The Filthy Screed’. Writing Down the Dragon, my book of essays on what I call the Tolkien Method, is proceeding under the incognito of ‘The Scratch Monkey’. But the work I want to talk about here, which my 3.6 Loyal Readers know all too well, is ‘The Magnificent Octopus’.

‘The Magnificent Octopus’ is a multi-volume series. The actual series title is The Eye of the Maker. Book One, which with luck will be appearing very shortly, is to be called The End of Earth and Sky.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

There is a large park in Calgary near the neighbourhood where I grew up: Fish Creek Provincial Park. One day over thirty years ago, I rode my bicycle down one of the paths into the valley where the park is; but I took the wrong entrance by mistake, and wound up slogging through what seemed like miles of up-hill, down-dale, get-off-your-bike-and-push terrain before I struck any familiar landmarks. If this sounds like an inauspicious idea for a fantasy, it probably is. But it gave me the idea of the hero returning from the forbidden and forbidding mountain realm of the Old Gods, coming back by a different road than he thought he was taking, and being catapulted into all sorts of adventures because he didn’t know where he was.

It is Brian Aldiss, I think, who says that his best stories come from the juxtaposition of two ideas, which he calls the exotic and the familiar. For me, getting lost in the park was the familiar bit. The exotic idea (which is now too familiar to anybody who uses the Internet) was the idea of the Eye of the Maker itself, the magic jewel that confers (theoretical) omniscience: it answers, correctly and infallibly (unlike the Internet), any question that you have the wit to ask it. But it can’t predict the future, and it doesn’t tell you the things that you don’t know you don’t know.

What genre does this fall under?

Straight-up epic fantasy of, I am afraid, a very old-fashioned kind. It isn’t particularly gritty or ironic or ‘Grimdark’, and it certainly isn’t urban fantasy; it hasn’t got a wizards’ school or sparkly vampires, and it should therefore, according to the commercial pundits, go over like pickled strawberries.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version?

I go by voices more than faces when I think of actors; sometimes I borrow an actor’s voice, and try to imagine a particular character’s dialogue being delivered in that voice. I also like to read my work aloud (privately) as a way of catching infelicities and errors. In my mind’s ear I have borrowed Christopher Lee’s voice for Vargon, Lord of the Dead. Rijeth, the retired wizard, sounds something like the long-late William Hartnell. The other characters haven’t yet attached themselves to particular voices.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of the book?

Oh, gosh. I hate writing these—

Young Calin Lowford, forbidden to go to war, braves the forbidden mountains of the Old Gods to avenge his best friend’s death.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Self-published (under the name of Bondwine Books). ‘Bondwine’ is the name of a magic elixir that appears later on in the series.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Two months, but that was decades ago and almost nothing of that draft has survived. Once a decade or so, I have dusted it off and tried again, more or less from scratch, to see if I have grown sufficiently as a writer to do the subject justice. This time I think I may have done it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

After so many years of drafts and side-story and back-story, it has developed some of the many-layered and ramifying nature of Tolkien’s work. I also have some of Tolkien’s habit of developing the story through language (or vice versa), though of course I am immensely less learned. The story as such owes something to Stephen R. Donaldson, though without, I hope, the brooding self-pity that tends to disfigure his heroes. There are threads of Welsh and English legend, and a certain flavour of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. Prydain is of course just the old Welsh name for Britain; it was partly as a nod to Alexander, partly to emphasize the British elements in my invented country, and partly for reasons to do with my invented language, that I called that country ‘Pyrandain’.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

In the first instance, I was a teenaged fanboy with Tolkien, Donaldson, Lewis, and Alexander (and others) swirling round all too freely in my head. I wanted to join in on the conversation, and pay forward some of the debt that I owed to the writers and the books I loved. Besides, it seemed like (and was) enormous fun to do. After the first attempt went nowhere helpful, I set the story aside, but something about it insisted on being told. I have tried my hand at a good many other things (some of which had nothing to do with writing), but I keep coming back to this. Evidently it needs to be written down properly and exorcised from my brain.

What else about your book might pique the interest of readers?

Chases, fights, oaths of revenge, ancient lore, wizardly combats, omens, visions, perils, betrayals, magical tests, hidden gods, and the Secret at the End of the World. And that’s just in Book One. Seven more to come!

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