Okay, on to our daily business. Today I am thrilled to welcome author Robert V.S. Redick to Mira’s List to talk a bit about his new book and his creative process. Robert is the author of three epic fantasy novels:
The Red Wolf Conspiracy, The Rats and the Ruling Sea (The Ruling Sea in the U.S.) and The River of Shadows, the latter published April 19 by Del Rey and Gollancz U.K. Together with the final volume (2012) these books make up The Chathrand Voyage Quartet. Before turning full-time to fiction, he worked for the antipoverty organization Oxfam, reviewed theater for two New England newspapers, taught in a bilingual school in Cali, Colombia, and ran a writing workshop as part of the International Development and Social Change program at Clark University. His unpublished mainstream novel, Conquistadors, is set during the Dirty War in Argentina, where he studied and traveled extensively in the 1990s. Redick has an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and an M.A. in Tropical Conservation and Development from the University of Florida. He lives in western Massachusetts with his partner Kiran Asher, as well as a cat, dog and three-striped mud turtle. He can be reached through his website, redwolfconspiracy.com
1. Robert, thanks so much for visiting my blog today. First I want to say congratulations! You have a book coming out on April 19th, River of Shadows, the third book in the Chathrand Voyage Series. I’m reading book one right now, The Red Wolf Conspiracy and it’s amazing! Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell my readers a little bit about your fantasy series?
With pleasure, Mira, and thanks for having me here! The Chathrand Voyage is epic fantasy. It tells the story of the crew and passengers of an immense, 600-year-old sailing ship, the Chathrand, who find themselves at the epicenter of forces that are rending the world about them to pieces. That world is called Alifros, and like many fantasy settings it’s both very like and utterly unlike this world. Like, in that it is war-torn, and perhaps standing on the edge of an abyss. Like in that it is fractured along ethnic, religious and economic lines, and no one’s hands are clean. Unlike, in that it is populated not by humans alone, but also by a growing number of intelligent species. I say “growing” because that is literally the case: a disease or spell is at work in Alifros, which causes animals to suddenly attain human intelligence--often with disastrous consequences for their sanity. This force is spreading quickly, and no one knows just where it will lead. There are also many non-human but humanoid species, though they appear to have been deciminated in numbers by human civilization.
Fortunately we enter this world through just a handful of core characters. Pazel Pathkendle, first of all, is a youth working as a “tarboy” or shipboard servant in the merchant navy of the very empire which seized and annexed his country five years before—and no, the choice was not really his. Thasha Isiq is a young woman born into the military elite of that empire: in fact she is the daughter of the very admiral who led the invasion of Pazel’s homeland. By the oddest circumstances they both end up on the Chathrand, which is under the command of the infamous, sadistic and possibly deranged Captain Nilus Rose. Who is in turn under the eye of the emperor’s elderly spymaster, Sandor Ott. Who in turn has some ugly connections to Thasha’s family...and so on.
By the time you reach The River of Shadows, you’re good 1200 pages into a story that pulls few punches with complexity. Peace treaties become tools for warmaking, allies become foes and vice-versa, conspirators are used by other conspirators, ships sink, monsters devour pivotal characters ... And the choices of Pazel and Thasha remain at the heart of it all. You can probably tell I’ve had the time of my life, writing these books.
2. Wow, what a huge project. What have been some of the greatest challenges so far in working on such a long series?
Doing it very well, and fast. No other challenge compares to that one. Publishing is a lean business, and publishers don’t want any part of the audience for a series to drift away between volumes. Nor do writers, of course. The challenge is to not appall anyone with the length of time it takes you to continue the story, nor to harm your books by rushing them, nor to collapse. It’s a very tough balance to maintain.
Beyond that, it can be tough to know just how much allowance you want to make for readers who pick up a book out of sequence. For the record, I’d strongly urge readers to start at the beginning. This is one story, not four, and you’d never read a story bound in one volume by cracking it open halfway and plowing forward. All the same, sometimes you just end with the second or third book in a series in your hands, and want to get started. I try to make that enjoyable, without distorting the narrative as a whole.
So many ways to answer that question! Do you mean the daily routine, the overall effort with a book, the psychologial approach I try to take? Or perhaps something else?
Well, I get asked that question a lot myself when I do readings and I find most people want to know what I do on a daily basis. So I’ll approach it that way. What does a normal writing day for you look like, if there is in deed a 'normal' day? Do you ever take time off from writing, i.e. long stretches of time or do you tend to write every day?
Of course when you’re in the middle of a book, a part of you is always wrestling with the next scene, the next chapter, the next challenge. When something clicks in me, it doesn’t matter where I am—I stop and think about it, and write out my thoughts before they vanish into the ether. The same is true at night. Pencil and paper on the bedside table are a must.
4. I do that too. I actually keep a small notebook in every single room, even the bathroom! Anyway, I'm intrigued about your past—you’ve had such an unusual background—you’ve studied Russian and tropical conservation, you worked at Oxfam, you lived and traveled extensively in South America, just to mention a handful of things. Eventually, you ended up in Warren Wilson's low-residency MFA writing program. What ways do you feel your pre-MFA life experiences helped shape your writing today?
Everything that I feel and think and ponder and remember has an effect on the story. The Chathrand Voyage, of course, is not about my life. But it is nonetheless a most intimate project for me, as I hope all my fiction will be. As you say, I have roamed around a bit. And I dare say you, Mira, know how much that can change a person. Provided, of course, that you go there open to change, not wrapped in a cultural coccoon. I did have transformative experiences in Argentina and Colombia and elsewhere. But the truth is that the urge to go places was itself the symptom of a much older way of relating to the world, which I’d describe as both a desperate hunger to belong and a militant effort not to. I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of membership in a club. And I’ve never been able to resist trying to speak across boundaries of belonging. There’s something a bit pathetic in this, if you ask me. But it does create good circumstances for storytelling.
5. Do you feel like going to an MFA program was helpful?
Tremendously. And I say that as someone who walked away from an MFA, after spending two semesters and $20,000 on the experiment, and moving to the opposite side of the country. All that before eventually finding a program that did help me, and loving every minute of my studies. OK, not every minute. Just 92% of them. Warren Wilson was a delirious joy.
But the point I’d like to stress is that you must stay true to yourself and your work, even as you open yourself up to learn. You will get bad advice along with good. You will see pettiness and backbiting, alongside generosity and kindness. And you must never, ever downgrade your depth of feeling about a story. That story is what counts. It is never a “school project,” never a “thesis.” You have to be prepared to fight your program for the sake of your own work—or even walk away if necessary. Just as vitally, though, you have to be not just willing to hear what’s wrong with your work, but famished to hear it. That’s what you’re there for! And when you’ve begged and pleaded and cobbled together all the feedback you can get, you must be able to decide what part of it you believe, and what you don’t.
MFAs can do great good, or great harm. You have to be the judge of your experience, and act accordingly.
6. That's great advice. I went back to get my MFA in writing after many years doing other things. For me, the best part of it was finding a handful of great readers who became friends. They are still my readers now and then and still my friends. On another note, as you know, I help people find funding and residencies so that they have time and money to do their creative work. Have you ever done a residency program anywhere? If so, where was it and in what ways did it impact your writing?
I’ve never participated in such a thing, and would love to. But I should note that low-residency programs like Warren Wilson are essentially short, hyper-intensive learning retreats strung together by semesters of one-on-one mentorship. Those retreats, or residencies as they’re called, squeeze the book geekery of a whole year into about ten days (for which you may well have prepared for months). I had six such residencies, each challenging and strange and exhausting and adrenal. They were a bit like the scenes in The Matrix where Keanu Reeves is force-fed knowledge through a brain cable. You walk away feeling electrified, feeling there’s nothing you can’t do. And then the work begins.
7. Hah! I love that. The Matrix thing sounds a little like what it felt like going to my first AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference years ago. So in closing, any brilliant words of advice to emerging writers out there?
Don’t burden your writing or yourself with awful spectres—as I did. Don’t tie up your sense of self-worth with “making it” as a writer. Embrace things—many things, if you can—that have nothing to do with putting words on a page. Then you’ll have more stories to tell, and some natural immunity to the foolishness that you’ll encounter in the writing life. And then, if and when you do write—well, respect your dreams. They’re on your side. They’re the gold in your hands.
What a wonderful way to end our interview! Thanks so much for joining us today and I wish you great success on your new book, The River of Shadows, and good luck on finishing up the final book in the series. I can’t wait to read them all.
Thank you Mira!
You can get Robert V. S. Redick’s books at your local bookstore (please support your local indie bookstores!) or on Amazon and Barnes & Noble of course. But have I mentioned yet that you should support your local independent bookstores and keep them alive and thriving? I will try to post from France if I can—I will have limited email access though and won’t be bringing my computer (yay!). So if you don’t hear from me, you will later in May. Also, I do have other kinds of artists in the queue for interviews (painters, printmakers, filmmakers, etc.) but for some reason, the writers always respond pronto and my other interviewees are a bit slower to write their answers back to me. See you soon! Love, Mirabee