Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sit. Write. Bleed. interviews John Marco!

Technical problems aside, this is probably my favorite interview so far on Sit.Write.Bleed. Not only did I get to interact with one of my favorite authors EVER, but without a shadow of a doubt, he is one of the nicest people I have ever had the chance to come across.

John Marco is the critically acclaimed author of The Tyrants and Kings Series, The Inhumans Trilogy a.k.a The Lukien Trilogy, as well as the underrated science fiction novel Starfinder. He was kind enough to  take time out of promoting his new book, The Forever Knight: A Novel of The Bronze Knight, to speak with a die-hard fan of his work. He was candid, open, and surprised me so much with his insight not only in examining the publishing industry, but his own work as well.

So John, tell us about your new book and the fourth novel in the Bronze Knight series, “The Forever Knight.”

Thanks, Jay, for giving me the chance to come to your site and talk about it.  It took a long time to get The Forever Knight on the shelves, and it’s a relief to have it available at last.  The thing that I want people to know about this book is that they don’t have to have read the first three books in the series to know what’s going on—they can just jump right in.  The story sets the main character from those first books—Lukien—in a new direction.  So far, people who have only read this book say that following it hasn’t been a problem.

The other thing that I’d say about this book is that it’s more intimate than the others.  This isn't an “epic” fantasy in the traditional sense.  It’s more focused and lean.  I’m not sure yet how readers of the original books will feel about that, but it was a conscious choice.

The last novel, “The Sword of Angels”, came out in 2006 to really great reviews and featured a cover by the amazing Todd Lockwood, and then there was a long period of silence afterward in terms of Lukien. What happened between 2006 and now in terms of getting the fourth book out? Did you have it written, or was there a goal to go and do other stories (like Starfinder)?

“The Sword of Angels” was supposed to be the last Lukien book.  Or at least that was my intention when I wrote it.  After that I wrote a book called “The Black Mirror” which is still in a kind of publishing limbo, and then I wrote the YA novel “Starfinder,” which failed to find an audience, unfortunately.  I’m not sure what happened there, because I enjoyed writing that book and stand behind it still, but I guess that’s just how it goes.  One thing I've learned is that a writing career is filled with ups and downs.  It’s not a straight rocket ride to the moon, or at least it hasn’t been for me.  After all that, however, I found that my writing style had changed.  What I wanted out of writing had changed as well.  And all the while I had Lukien in my head.  People were asking for more books about him, but I knew I didn't want to just go back and do things the same way.  That’s why “The Forever Knight” is so different from the previous books.

One of the very interesting things about this novel is its shift in style. I have always said you are one of the best authors who uses third-person point of view in a really artful way, yet with “The Forever Knight” you have not only written a shorter book, but also a story told from Lukien’s first-person perspective. How did that come about?

Well first, thanks for the compliment about my third-person writing.  When I think about writing fiction I still think primarily about third-person, perhaps because of the wide scope it allows the writer.  On the other hand, I started to realize that some of my all-time favorite books were first-person accounts—like “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “True Grit.”  And here I had Lukien “speaking” in my head.  His voice clearer in a way that none of my other characters ever had been.  It just seemed right to tell his new story from his viewpoint entirely.

Besides that, I need to do different things.  Like I said, not everything I've done has been successful, but I’m glad I tried them.

I really enjoyed watching the progression of Lukien as a character in this novel. It really picks up where “The Sword of Angels” left off, with Lukien wondering where he fits in the grand scheme now that the Devil’s Armor is destroyed and the world was saved. Was there something you wanted to do with him that you hadn't done before in the previous novels?

I wanted to spend more time with him.  By the end of “The Sword of Angels,” Lukien had to share the stage with a bunch of other characters.  That was fine, I guess, because that’s what I wrote, so it must have been what I wanted at that time.  But  I really like Lukien.  And I like the way readers responded to him.  A small percentage of readers actually can’t stand him, and I even like that!  He’s complicated and has this inner dialogue going on, and that’s what I tried to explore in the new book.

Malator, the Akari spirit which resides within the Sword of Angels, not only bestows upon Lukien his immortality but also is a constant companion. Unlike some of the other characters, however, there is tension between them. What was the genesis of Malator when you first sat down years ago to write him?

Malator wasn't always going to be such a major character.  He was one of those that just came to life out of necessity.  Originally the Sword of Angels was written as a magical sword.  That’s how I presented it in my original outline.  I wanted to take the idea of the typical magical fantasy sword and put my own spin on it.  I wound up creating this big history and back story for it, because the Sword of Angels is the antithesis to the Devil’s Armor from the second book.  It’s one of those things where your imagination gets to take over.  The character of Malator sprung from that.  And yes, there’s a definite tension between Malator and Lukien.  Malator is old and wise but also kind of impish.  Plus he’s a taskmaster.  He’s the kind of “mentor” that a brash character like Lukien needs.

Moving away from the novel for a moment and to your other writing, I know you are working a project right now called “The Bloody Chorus.” Could you tell us a little about that, or is it top-secret for now?

No, it’s not a secret at all.  In fact I blog about it from time to time and have posted a couple of six sentence excerpts from it because I enjoy talking about it.  “The Bloody Chorus” is a return for me to the epic, third-person form we just talked about.  It’s the story about an ancient island kingdom and the outside world, and its filled with gods and goddesses and a lot of sea-faring lore.  The main island has a definite “Atlantis” feel to it, but it’s not underwater or anything like that.  There’s a great deal of culture clash in the story, as well as mythology and religiosity.  At the moment, my current publisher DAW Books has said they want to publish it, and that’s very likely what will happen.

One thing that has always impressed me about your writing style, and I cannot help but admit that it has affected my own, is your ability to craft amazing emotional resonance in third-person, which is something difficult for a lot of young authors to do without being somewhat clumsy in their application. Where did you develop this ability and how long did it take to cultivate?

This is one of those questions where I have to start by saying thanks.  Honestly, the most important thing to me—the thing that I want the most—is for readers to have an emotional response to my writing.  Every once in a while a reader will tell me that a particular scene made them cry, and that is the highest compliment I can think of.  Sorry if that sounds a bit sadistic, but yes, I want you to cry.  That’s awesome!

I can’t really answer the question as to the “how,” though.  All I can think to say is that I take a character-driven approach to my writing.  I’m fascinated about the “why” of things, and less interested in the “what.”  If the reader knows a character’s motivations, then maybe they can invest in that character.  All of that is just a different form of action.  And once they’re invested and care, moving the emotions becomes easier.  Maybe that’s all there is to it—getting the reader to care about the characters.  That’s something that we hear all the time.  People say “oh, I didn't like that movie because I didn't care what happened to the characters.”  If you don’t like the characters on some level, the story is doomed.  Even the villains have to be “liked,” or at least compelling.

So let’s go back all the way to the beginning, before you were published. When you first sat down to write The Jackal of Nar, what do you wish you had known then?

A lot!  But it’s hard to put into words.  I think I had most of the tools back then, but they weren't as sharp as they are now.  I have a keener sense of pacing and dialogue, and I've largely abandoned the long descriptions.  Sometimes I think I go overboard with that, in fact.  I now sometimes neglect to mention a character’s hair or eye color for example, because I don’t actually care much about those things.  I’m better at weaving those things into the story more naturally, rather than just dumping all the details on the reader.  I’d rather risk leaving stuff out than giving the reader a ton of information upfront.  So it’s the little things, I suppose.  I've managed to knock off some of the rough edges of my writing.  I've also come to embrace the idea that there’s always more to learn.  That’s something I've always told myself, but now I believe it completely.

Talk about Crezil for a moment. There are a lot of similarities I see between that character and mythological monsters like Enkidu and Grendel. What attracted you to writing this particular character?

Ah, Crezil!  Definitely one of my favorite characters in the book, and he never says a word.  Crezil is my monster.  I say “my” because I wanted to build a monster from the ground up.  I needed to make him hideous, and I think I may have succeeded because more than one person has told me that he’s going to give them nightmares. The thing about Crezil is that he’s a mystery.  He’s a big part of the puzzle of the story, because no one knows until the end what he is or what he wants.  At first he seems like a mindless killing machine, but it’s up to Lukien to uncover the truth about him.  And by the way, I say “he” here because Crezil feels male, but no one knows if it actually has a gender.

What advice would you give writers today if they are just starting out?

Man, I’m so bad at this question.  I really wanted to skip it, but I know it’s important, which is why it’s asked so often.  Everyone gives their version of the “don’t give up” pep talk, so here’s mine—learn to love the struggle.  Because that’s what it’s going to be.  It’s very likely that you won’t be an overnight success.  It’s very likely, in fact, that your first efforts won’t be very good, and that it will be your second or third book that’s actually publishable.  So what’s that mean?  It means you've got to be in it for the long haul.  Even if you’re going to self-publish, you need to keep on writing, keep growing that backlist, keep getting better, keep working hard and marketing yourself and learning from others.  To quote one of my fictional heroes, Rocky Balboa, it’s not about how hard you can hit—it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.  (And just to prove it, here’s the clip!)

Turning again from the writing, the industry has changed a lot since 1999 when “The Jackal of Nar” was released by Bantam Spectra. Prints sales are now measured on an iffy metric, E-books are the new norm, and it seems like the traditional publishing industry is in a state of crisis where they no longer have many brick and mortar bookstores to sell books to, and Amazon is clearly at the top of the heap. Even in the wake of “The Sword of Angels” in 2006, so much has happened, and I was wondering what your view is today of the industry in general? Do you think the sky is falling or can publishing be saved?

I’m sure the truth is somewhere in the middle, and no one knows exactly what it is.  Certainly not me.  You’re right—things have changed a lot since 2006.  It’s hard to keep up with it.  On the other hand, I love the indie publishing thing.  It’s a revolution, which is why I've had a number of indie writers as guests over at my blog.  There was a time when I thought I’d never read books on an electronic device, and now I actually prefer to read books on my Kindle.  So it’s all unpredictable and frightening and moving at an unsettling speed.  I have no idea where things will wind up, but I do think people will always want to read books.

So the big question—will there be another Bronze Knight novel, and if so, when can we expect it? Do you have an ending in mind for Lukien, or is that still up in the air?

There’s definitely going to be another Bronze Knight novel.  It’s already under contract, I have some ideas for it, and even have a title for it picked out.  I’ll start writing it as soon as I've finished writing “The Bloody Chorus” and a short story I have committed to for an upcoming anthology of military fantasy stories.

Final question: throughout fantasy there are a lot of tropes which are beloved and used constantly because of their longevity. Which one tropes do you HATE?

This is a hard one to answer.  If you had asked about science fiction tropes I would have definitely said time travel, because I absolutely hate time travel stories.  But it’s harder for me with fantasy.  No, actually, it just came to me!  I dislike the evil “Dark Lord” trope.  It’s  so boring and outdated.  You don’t really see it that much in modern fantasy literature, but it still pops up all the time in animation and movies.  I definitely want my villains to be more nuanced than that.

NEEDLESS TO SAY, this was a great interview. If you want to find out more about John Marco and his work (and you know you do), please check out these links:


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Friday, April 5, 2013

A Review of The Forever Knight aka I Love John Marco

So it has been a little bit since the last blog post, but fear not, Sit.Write.Bleed. is back with a very special installment of "I Love..."

And it is so appropriate that the title of this post is "I Love John Marco", because in many ways John Marco is one of the key authors who made me want to become a writer. When I was fourteen there weren't a lot of jobs around my hometown to be found for the younger set of workers out there, but if a neighborhood had a pool, you can bet there was a lifeguard and pool management company that ran it. One of the really great perks of being a lifeguard is that you spend more than half an hour off the stand, and unless there is cleaning to be done (and usually there isn't, if pool-boards were to be honest, which they usually aren't), I found a lot of time to read. Most of that reading was fantasy, and while perusing Eva Perry Library for books, I found a very wonderful novel titled "The Eyes of God." Featuring the mighty Lukien of Liiria, The Bronze Knight, and the champion of Grimhold, I discovered a world of epic fantasy that stuck with me through high school and into college. Just like George RR Martin, John Marco was taking fantasy tropes and turning them on their ear, imbuing a cast of characters into real people who breathed upon the page, where the consequences of their actions had real consequences. And above it all stood Lukien, a hero who wished never to be one in the first place. In complete honesty and disclosure, my hero, Jishnu the Srijati, may have a lot of Conan and a good bit of Drizzt mixed together within, but in his soul, Jishnu is also a grand homage to Lukien and to John Marco.

The Eyes of God, along with The Devil's Armor (one of the most underrated sequels in all of Epic Fantasy) and The Sword of Angels, were one of the formative series that shaped me as a writer. Yes, the world Lukien lives in is a grim place, full of danger and intrigue, but the characters exemplify the best of heroic fantasy and everything a writer should try to capture.

I have been privileged to email with John a few times in the past, and recently a shot came up to read and review his new novel, The Forever Knight - A Novel of the Bronze Knight:

The fantastic cover was made by Todd Lockwood

Needless to say that when I volunteered to read and write a review for it, I was more than ecstatic when this advanced reader's copy appeared in my mailbox. Over the last month or two (time flies when the book is fun), I have come to be more amazed by Marco's skill and mastery of the genre than ever before.

The Forever Knight picks up where The Sword of Angels left off. Lukien still protects Grimhold, home of the Inhumans, but is now free of one of the two Eyes of Gods that guaranteed his immortality, having replaced the magical amulet with the powerful Sword of Angels, a mighty weapon which contains the Akari spirit of Malator, a hero from ages past. What really struck me about this novel immediately were two things:

1. John Marco, a master of third person-limited, decided to tell the story from Lukien's first person perspective, and
2. Damn, this book is short. Marco's work usually spans over 700 pages, but The Forever Knight comes in at a very trim 282 pages!

What follows is both a gamble and a feat of writing mastery that both dazzled and left me thoroughly impressed. While the book is much shorter, it is clear that in the seven years since Sword of Angels' release (2006) that Marco has spent his time refining his craft, as each sentence packs a punch and carries the story along at a break-neck pace. Even though there are the grand battles, ghostly magics, and well-layered characters abound, Marco still retains his greatest skill as a writer--all of his characters, especially Lukien, are real. They breath upon the pages, interacting with each other in a realistic sense. None of it feels forced or fabricated to get the plot from one point to the next.

The strength of this novel truly lies with Lukien, who is so nuanced as hero, still struggling to coincide his past losses of his friends and the love of his life, Cassandra, while miring in the peace he helped create during the Inhumans Trilogy. We get to see what happens when good wins but the hero is left alone with nothing to show for his victory beyond his victory, and with this base emotion of a listless existence, Marco has remade a protagonist we can all relate to. At some point in all our lives we feel like we used to do something worthwhile but then that something was finished and we were left spinning our wheels. Sometimes we do stupid things to fill the gap, and sometimes we do great things. Lukien does both, and it makes him a very compelling character as he goes off the find meaning in the world through war and wonders. His relationship with Malator is especially captivating, as the dialogue between them is superb and really fleshes them both out in ways that the previous novel could not.

If some out there haven't read the first trilogy, I would implore all do to so, but one of the nice things that Marco does is write this novel in such a way that the reader can piece together what happened, effectively letting the reader start fresh at this point. He is one of the few writers I have found who can do it right, the other being RA Salvatore and Stephen Lawhead.

Bottom line, The Forever Knight is an enthralling adventure, one that I would encourage anyone reading this blog to go and pick up immediately. Here is the link to Amazon, and since Amazon now owns everything, go get it there so Mr. Marco gets some well-deserved royalties.

Stay tuned, because this is not the last you will be hearing of John Marco on Sit. Write. Bleed. Next week we'll get to talk to the man himself, so come on back!