When I considered resuming doing new interviews, I checked to see who was releasing something new in the near future, or had just published a new book, and of course Bradley P. Beaulieu's name immediately came up. With Blood Upon the Sand (Canada, USA, Europe) just hit the shelves and the timing was just about right to have a chat with the author!
- TWELVE KINGS IN SHARAKHAI garnered a lot of rave reviews when it was released in 2015. That book marked a lot of new beginnings for you: New series, new publishers, new Middle-Eastern setting, etc. Looking back, how happy are you with readers' response to the first installment in The Song of the Shattered Sands series?
Honestly, I couldn’t ask for much more. It got a lot of attention when it came out in September of that year and again a few months later when it hit over twenty “Best of the Year” lists. My favorite part has been meeting (mostly virtually) so many new fans. People really seem to like the main character, Çeda, and that’s been immensely gratifying, because I really came to like her as well.
- Without giving too much away, can you give potential readers a taste of the tale that is The Song of the Shattered Sands?
I usually tell people to think of A Game of Thrones crossed with Arabian Nights. The Song of the Shattered Sands is a sweeping epic fantasy told against a backdrop of cruel kings, fickle gods, sandships, blood magic, and a desert city as grand as the soaring palaces of its kings and as gritty as the back-alleys that house the desperate yet brutal resistance to their rule.
- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write The Song of the Shattered Sands in the first place?
There were a lot of influences roiling around when this book started to coalesce—things that sparked early ideas without it necessarily being a story as yet. What really made me fall in love with it, though, was the notion of family and society and how those concepts can change over time. The main character, Çeda, is a pit fighter when we first meet her. Through flashbacks, we also meet her mother, who was murdered by the Kings when Çeda was young. Her mother had a purpose in the desert city of Sharakhai. She just hadn’t told Çeda about it by the time she died.
Throughout the book, Çeda begins to see more of her mother’s purpose. She starts to connect with her mother’s past—her family’s past as well—and it’s through that journey that we start to see more about the Kings and the dark bargain they made with the desert gods to secure their power.
Again and again, I came back to the notions of friendship, family, culture, and customs. Çeda thought she knew what the desert was about, what the city was about, but that all changed when she began uncovering more secrets about her mother’s past. Those ideas were emotional touchpoints that helped drive the novel and keep me interested in writing it.
- How well-received has the second volume, WITH BLOOD UPON THE SAND, been thus far?
So far so good! Enough people seemed to be hungry for it that it got a decent bit of buzz when it hit the shelves.
I was very nervous about it, though. This may come as a complete surprise, but authors are kind of neurotic. I believed in the book, of course. So did my editors and beta readers. But there’s always that doubt. Will it really take off? Will it live up to the promise of the first book?
So far, I’m happy to say that people seem to be digging it. The hope now is that the momentum continues through the rest of the series!
- What's the progress report for volume 3? Any tentative release date?
The third installment is titled A Veil of Spears, and I’ve heard word that we’re targeting March of 2018, a year from now. I’m just now reaching the end of the book. It’s a hot mess, honestly. The longer I write, the more I leave minor details and massaging of prose to the next draft so I can simply get the bones down.
- You have also published some sort of companion book titled OF SAND AND MALICE MADE a few months back. What can you tell us about it?
Of Sand and Malice Made is a small novel, a triptych of three novellas that tell a story that’s set a few years before Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. The story is about Çeda and an ehrekh, a djinni of sorts, who becomes … curious about Çeda. With the ehrekh’s curiosity comes mystery, intrigue, and danger, but when the ehrekh sets its sights on Çeda’s friends, she becomes desperate to stop it.
It’s a prequel of sorts. I think it’s great for existing fans of the series who want to dive back into the world, but some have said it was a nice introduction that got their feet wet before biting off a doorstop fantasy. For fans of the series, there are also some cool plot threads that begin in Sand and Malice and are picked up again in With Blood Upon the Sand.
- You were unfortunately affected by the troubled times at Night Shade Books while writing/publishing The Lays of Anuskaya. It wasn't easy for anyone involved, that goes without saying. How different has your experience been working with the folks at Daw Books and Gollancz for The Song of the Shattered Sands?
When I signed with Night Shade Books, they were a small, hungry company looking to expand into epic fantasy. They decided to give my books a shot, and for that, I was and remain grateful. I feel genuinely bad that Night Shade didn’t survive in their initial incarnation. (Their assets, as you alluded, were later sold off in a rather messy process for most authors.) Despite how it ended, they had good vision and put out a lot of strong, bold books while the original team were publishing. Their ship eventually hit choppy waters—which is no real surprise; publishing is a famously ruthless business, after all—but they still have a lot to be proud of.
Things are always going to be different when moving from a mid-sized publisher to one of the Big 5, or one like DAW, who distributes through one of the Big 5 (in their case, Penguin Random House). They have bigger budgets for editing, artwork, marketing and publicity. They have longer, closer relationships with book sellers. They have more personnel to handle various specialized tasks.
So the experience has been different, and welcome, because it’s given the books a chance at reaching a wider audience. I’m grateful to DAW and Gollancz for giving me a shot. And because the books have been doing so well, I’m glad I’ve been able to reward their faith.
- Terrorism has been an important part of both The Lays of Anuskaya and The Song of the Shattered Sands. In the former, you gave the character Soroush a lot of depth, showing that there was much more to him than just being a fundamentalist terrorist. Personally, and I'm aware that some readers will disagree with me, I felt that your portrayal of the Moonless Host was decidedly black and white. There were no layers, no shades of gray.
And I'm wondering if the fact that Islamic terrorism is on the news every day of the week, as well as the fact that you have created a Middle-Eastern environment, perhaps had you walking on thin ice while writing about the Moonless Host? That perhaps you could go deeper in a Russian-inspired setting, but that fear of being accused of Islamophobia or of generalizing could have forced you, even subconsciously, to somewhat take a step back. Could that be the case?
One of the primary themes I was working with in both series was the notion of how empire is viewed and what the consequences will be. Conquest isn’t easy. It’s bloody and painful and has ramifications that last generations into centuries. When a society is conquered and is so thoroughly outmatched, whether that’s through technology or magic or sheer might, there’s little left for the marginalized except peaceful protest, civil disobedience, or terrorist acts.
I’ve long been struck by the notion of resistance movements, and that interest was only heightened by the Gulf War, 9/11, the Iraq War, and all of the US’s meddling in the Middle East. What one person views as a terrorist others view as a freedom fighter. I condemn all such actions, of course, but it’s not difficult to understand why constant occupation and bombing would lead to a strong, radical resistance movement. In fact, it’s ridiculous to think it would lead to anything else. Violence begets violence.
All of that has been roiling around in my mind since then, and it’s come through in my writing. With The Lays of Anuskaya, I wasn’t interested in painting either side as right or wrong. I wanted more shades of gray between the various players to show how easily we can dehumanize the “other.” And to then ask the question: what do we do when confronted with the humanity of your enemy? We have preconceptions of what our supposed enemies are like, but if we knew them, we’d likely be struck by how similar they are to us, how aligned our desires: to live, to worship as we choose, to raise children and see them prosper, to do what we love without interference.
In The Song of the Shattered Sands, however, I made a conscious decision to make the opposition, the Kings, more traditionally evil. It did this partially to make sure that the two series had their own unique identities, and partially to tread new ground as a writer. I wanted a starker difference between the heroes and the antagonists.
The Kings, while still human, are right bastards. And the Moonless Host, the primary opposition to the Kings, are pretty ruthless in return. They do some terrible things in the city and beyond. Even so, I don’t consider them completely black or irredeemable. They are people who are dealing with centuries of oppression and, right or wrong, they’ve become desperate to even the scales.
I suspect part of the issue in Twelve Kings is that we view the Host primarily through two characters—Çeda and Ramahd—and both of them hate the Moonless Host for different reasons. If some consider the Host without gradation, it may be because Çeda and Ramahd view them that way. I don’t know. I can only say that there is a deep-seated anger in the scarabs of the Moonless Host that pushes them to try harder, to be as ruthless as the Kings have been. After all, if they aren’t, what hope is there for them?
- What comes first for you when it comes time to consider your next novel/series: themes you wish to explore, a setting you're interested in, or characters you want to write about?
I don’t know that there’s any one answer. I let ideas marinate for a long time before I start writing a new series. Several years, in fact. My next two series are marinating now, and a several more are bubbling around inside my head in nascent form. Worldbuilding is really important to me, so I suppose that’s one of the first things I focus on. But I feel very, if you’ll excuse the pun, ungrounded if I don’t get a few characters out pretty quickly after that. The two play off one another, because to me they’re inextricably linked: the world itself gives birth to the characters, and character ideas often necessitate certain aspects of the world.
This creates a feeback loop of sorts. Ideas, be they world or characters ideas, grow and start to influence one another, and slowly but surely the story itself starts to accrete. Then it’s a matter of becoming the gardener, in George Martin parlance, to fertilize the soil and prune the story into a shape that’s pleasing to me (and hopefully readers!)
From that process, the theme starts to make itself known. I don’t often focus on it heavily just then, however. If it does present itself, great. If not, I know it will come to me in the writing. By the time I’m done with the first draft of the book, I know pretty well what things I want to enhance and draw out on the subsequent drafts.
- You have been a prolific short fiction writer in the past. Do you have any short stories/novellas coming up in 2017?
I do! There are two more coming up in anthologies, both Shattered Sands shorts. One is going to appear in Ragnarok Publications’ Hath No Fury anthology. It features Djaga, Çeda’s mentor in the fighting pits of Sharakhai.
The second is a story that will appear in Grimdark Magazine’s Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology, which features a story from the perspective of the ehrekh, Rümayesh, whom we first met in Of Sand and Malice Made.
I’ll also give a shout out to the Unfettered II charity anthology, from Grim Oak Press, which came out last September. That one features a story about Dardzada, Çeda’s foster parent in Sharakhai after her mother was killed by the Kings of Sharakhai.
- Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?
Dardzada the apothecary was probably the trickiest to write. He was someone who loved Çeda’s mother, and loved Çeda in his own way, but became overly protective of her. He did some pretty nasty things to her, things no loving parent would ever do. He’s a man who bottles his emotions, which often makes them come out much later in cruel and ugly ways. It certainly did with Dardzada.
I still wanted to paint him as human, though. He genuinely cared for Çeda. He just did a shit job of it. Having the young Çeda fall into his lap wasn’t something he was prepared for. That line between fumbling foster parent, an agent of the Moonless Host, and a man who wants to do right by the memory of Çeda’s mother was a difficult one to walk.
- How has your interaction with fans and critics colored your choices in terms of characterization and plot? Has there ever been anything that you've changed due to such interaction in any of your novels?
No, not really. I think that’s a really dangerous path to head down. It can really stifle creativity, make you tentative, and nothing kills a story like being tentative. When I write, I try to stay bold. Sometimes when I read it back I realized I’ve gone too far and I pull back, or that I’ve been tentative and I push harder, but in doing so I do try hard to keep it my story, the one my inner self wants to read, not what I hope readers will like. The distinction between writing for you and writing for your audience may seem small, but for me it’s crucial one, and I always try for the former.
As a small aside, and perhaps a word of warning for other authors out there, you’ll eventually come across a critique of your work that hits home. Really wounds you. Someone hates a character you dearly love, or thinks your plot is simplistic, or that the world is dull. But you’ll find in the very next critique someone who loves all the things the previous person hated about your story. You can’t please everyone. So don’t try to. Write for yourself. Write the book you really want to read.
The time for editing will come. Trust your beta readers and your editors. They’ll (generally) steer you right. And by the way, this is not to say we can’t improve in our writing. We all can. But it’s counterproductive at best to listen to too many critics. At worst, it can choke your creative process so fully that it can stifle your career, even damage it irreparably.
In the writing, stay true to yourself. Stay true to the story. The rest will work itself out later.
- According to George R. R. Martin, most authors are either architects, who write novels based on detailed outlines, or gardeners, who have a general idea of where the storylines are going but prefer to watch things grow as they go along. Which type of writer are you and why do you prefer that approach?
Ha! I hadn’t read this question before I answered above using the gardener term.
It’s funny. I come from a computer science background. I’ve been a programmer in the IT world since graduating college mumbledyfumble years ago. I thought I’d be a heavy outliner. And I tried to be for my first few trunked novels. Tried hard. But it just never came to me. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t see the story until I was knee-deep in it.
That said, I can’t just spin a story from nothing, either. This is partly why I take years to generate story ideas and to fill out the tale. I do plot, I just don’t do it heavily. I loosely work out the major turning points in the novel, as well as the ending, I plot out the first several chapters in some detail, and then I get into the writing.
The writing immediately starts to advise me, not only on what’s happening in the here and now, but where the story’s headed, where it’s necessarily been in order to arrive at this point in these circumstances with these particular characters. I’m constantly course-correcting while I’m writing, though I tend not to go back and re-write major pieces of the novel while I’m in progress. I don’t want to stall my forward progress, so I just jot down notes that I know I need to work on during the next draft.
I’ve come to really enjoy the second and third drafts, by the way. That’s where a lot of the magic enters the story for me these days.
- Have you ever written a scene, only to be stunned by your own reaction after reading it?
Yeah, there are some that are quite emotional for me. The scene in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai that does this to me is the one where Çeda visits this salt flat, and there are flocks of “blazing blues,” birds which flock in massive numbers like starlings. It was a touching scene, and one I added to create a bond between Çeda and her mother that had been lacking previously.
There are also some where people do some heroic or dastardly things. Meryam of Qaimir (Ramahd’s companion) is one such. She’s become one of the main players in the story, and it’s been quite fun seeing her transformation from driven to nearly maniacal in her quest to further the interests of her kingdom.
- How do you see heroism in epic fantasy?
Heroism can be a tricky subject, especially for authors new to the craft. We want our heroes to do great things. But we can’t have them be shining paladins with perfect smiles, either. They have to be human. One of the more difficult parts of the story-making process is to place the hero into a situation where they can do great things without making it look too easy. It has to come hard. The heroes have to work for it. There has to be an emotional cost to it, because it’s only through that the reader is going to care about the outcome.
I want my characters to do great things. I want them to be seen as heroic. But I want them to be believable too. They have to be human. They should celebrate their victories, certainly, because in that the reader feels a sense of release as well, but there also needs to be grief when they’ve made mistakes or made the hard choice. It’s a tricky formula to get right.
- Some writers admit having a favorite book among those they've written previously, others say that their favorite is their current work in progress, and others still say it's always the next book that hasn't been written yet. How about you?
I will admit that there’s a certain luster to that next book. There’s so much possibility. Things are still in your head, and they’re shiny. They’ve not yet been marred by your inability to create the perfect novel.
That said, I really do get invested in the current book while I write. I try to get myself into the emotional space to heighten what the characters themselves are going through. I don’t often get that on the first draft. It comes a bit more on the second and third drafts, when all the hard work is really starting to come together. There’s nothing more satisfying for a writer then reading a scene that feels just right in the context of the greater story.
- Neil Gaiman said of Lord Dunsany’s THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, “...It’s a rich red wine, which may come as a shock if all one has had so far has been cola.” If WITH BLOOD UPON THE SAND was a drink, which one would it be? Would you recommend downing it in one shot or sipping it slowly...?
I’ll admit that I’m often thinking about single-malt whiskeys while I write about araq in the novels, so I’m going to go with that. Something with a bit of bite, subtle smoke, peaty and buttery, notes of vanilla, oak, and leather. Sipped slowly, of course! Always savor.
Now I need a drink. Be right back...
- Anything else you wish to share with us?
On the off chance that any of your readers will be in France this May, I’ll be headed to Les Imaginales in Épinal, France, May 18-21. My next appearance in the US is likely going to be GenCon in Indianapolis this coming August 17-20.
Thanks for having me by! This was an interesting talk.