Saturday, October 3, 2009

Chatting with the Author: Chris Evans

Foreword: I was extremely excited about Chris Evans' work ever since I read Robert's review of "A Darkness Forged in Fire" on Fantasy Book Critic. However I didn't have the opportunity to read and review his novel immediately back immediately, so I kept waiting and after awhile through a promotional blog tour for Chris' second novel did I receive both debut and sequel [reviews: HERE + HERE] and got the fan boy rush. I couldn't help, but contact Chris and iinvite him for a chat. Here is the result, but first the basics.

BIO: Chris Evans was born in Canada and now lives in New York City. As a military historian he has conducted battlefield tours of Europe and was the historical consultant on a television documentary on the First World War. He’s earned degrees in English, Political Science, and a Masters in History. Chris is also an editor of history and current affairs/conflicts books including the highly successful Stackpole Military History Series.

Harry Markov: Before we officially begin, I would like to take the chance and thank you once more for accepting my invitation. As a strange quirk and a tradition here at “Temple Library Reviews” I will start with a question regarding your first steps in literature. When did you realize that being a writer was your vocation so to speak?

Chris Evans: Thanks for giving me this chance to talk to your readers. Writing is a very solitary endeavor so any chance I get to step out of the cave and converse by the figurative campfire is always welcome.

I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Scratch that. I think I’ve always been a writer (and I suspect that’s the case for many writers,) but it took years for the concept to mature to a point that I was prepared to dedicate myself to becoming a published author. If I had to pick a precise moment I’d say it was the afternoon I successfully defended my Masters thesis. That was in 1998. I remember going home and immediately opening up a document on my computer and starting to write my first novel. Right then and there I more or less knew I wasn’t going to pursue a PhD and instead focus on commercial writing. It was scary and exhilarating.

HM: You are a historian by education and profession, so it’s pretty obvious that history is your love in life, but I am curious to know how fantasy as a genre became a passion.

CE: I love the creative freedom that fantasy gives a writer, and with it the significant responsibility to treat it with respect. I grew up reading the classics and like so many, Tolkien opened an entirely new world to me. That sense of adventure and wonder has never left so when I finally sat down to write my first novel I knew from the start that it would be a fantasy, I just wasn’t sure what kind. I knew medieval fantasies had been done incredibly well so I decided to go in a bit of a different direction relying on my history background to create a world inspired by Kipling’s British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, with a focus on the life of the ordinary soldier in an epic fantasy adventure.

HM: “A Darkness Forged in Fire” became one of the more well received and celebrated fantasy debuts for quite some time. Was this the first book you’ve ever written and how did you find your publication path from unpublished to quite a hit?

CE: That’s very kind of you to say - can I put you in touch my publicists at Simon & Schuster? I was pleasantly surprised at the positive reception the book received in most quarters both here in North America and abroad. With translations coming in Japanese, Russian, French, and German, I feel particularly fortunate to be where I am at this stage in my career.

A Darkness Forged In Fire is, depending on how one looks at these things, either my second or third book. In some ways I consider my Master thesis – a rather parched yet earnest study of tactical air power in WWII – to be my first book. I followed that with my first novel, a fantasy that remains consigned to my “to be revised” pile, but it gave me the confidence to write the Iron Elves.

As for getting published, the path essentially went from my participation in an online workshop run by Del Rey Books back in 1999. From there I attended the Clarion East writing workshop and while there was offered a job at Del Rey, not as an author, but as an editor. I jumped at the opportunity and learned the publishing business from the inside. That was the fall of 2000. Basically, I then spent a seven year apprenticeship as an editor while using my free time – when I could make some – to improve my skills as a writer. I kept writing and landed my first book deal with Pocket Books in May 2007.

HM: For those still not in the clear your Iron Elves series is set in a world modeled after the Napoleonic era, which is untypical setting for most fantasy series. Why did you choose to position your story in this era and how much research did it go into portraying life exactly as it was back then?

CE: I might be risking a linguistic oxymoronicism (that’s probably not a word) here, but I’d like to be clear that I have not written a historical fantasy. It’s true history inspires and informs what I write on many levels, but unlike the works of Naomi Novik or CC Finlay, my world is not earth. Having said that, you’re absolutely right that the Napoleonic era heavily influences the Iron Elves. I did a lot of research on that time period, especially diaries and journals from soldiers who were there. I even read some Old English texts from the late 1700s which proved to be a gold mine. So while the world of the Iron Elves is fictional, a lot of the details are very real – everything from the muskets to the smells.

HM: This question is more connected with the last. Since 1) military history manifests on a regular basis within fantasy, 2) the Middle Ages appear to be a favorite time slice for authors to explore and 3) you are a historian, which other military bubbles in history apart from the Middle Ages might result in an interesting story. Judging by your series the Napoleonic era works fine.

CE: My main area of study is actually the Second World War, and 20th century conflicts in general. I agree with you, there really is no end to what a writer could explore in history and use it for inspiration in a fantasy. Just the battles alone could keep an author busy for the rest of his or her life! Think about it – the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854, the Zulu’s at Isandlwana in 1879, the Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of the 20th century, the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and on and on. Personally, I’d love to explore a fantasy in the Middle East using the Arab-Israeli conflict as a foundation. Then again a huge, world-spanning epic in a time period like the First or Second World War offers no end of possibilities, but of course, the challenge in all of these is make a fantasy unique enough that it doesn’t wind up sound like WWI with bows and arrows and elves.

HM: To call to your experience as a historian and an avid reader, how do you rate the importance of historical accuracy in fiction as far as the term can be applied here? To the majority of readers, perhaps it won’t make much of a difference, but to those that have the historical facts down?

CE: If someone is writing historical fiction then it’s an absolute necessity, but even a fantasy author has to be just as rigorous with the details as any historian. I want my created world to feel real, and that means adhering to the rules I make and spending a lot of time creating the background that informs the current state of affairs. Tolkien remains the true master of this approach, and his place in the canon remains as strong as it does because of his incredible world building and attention to detail.

HM: Now let’s talk about the Iron Elves. Can you perhaps tell readers that still haven’t been able to start the series or doubting it, what they can expect?

CE: Well, I’m a huge fan of fantasy, including the ancient tropes of elves and dwarves. That said, when I embarked on the Iron Elves I wanted to try my hand at evolving the traditional European medieval setting to something more like the time of Napoleon. I’d always wanted to see what would happen to the core of Tolkien’s world if you moved it forward in time, and this gave me a chance to explore that. The other big driving force is my interest in history and military history in particular. I wanted to create an epic that was told, in part, from the perspective of the ordinary soldier. Armies abound in many fantasies, but they’re often relegated to the background. My interest was to bring that to the fore.

First and foremost I simply wanted to tell an entertaining story. And I wanted to delve into imperialism and colonialism in a fantasy setting. When it comes to the characters, I looked to tap into people not content with the world as they find it, or their place in it. Judging from the emails I receive from readers and the foreign translations that are underway I’d say I’m making progress, but there’s still a lot more I want to achieve with the story before it’s done.

Rudyard Kipling was a huge influence, especially his poems about the British soldier and imperialism and colonialism. Bernard Cornwell’s series Sharpe’s Rifles is another wellspring I happily acknowledge. Then there are the historians – John Keegan, Len Deighton, Terry Copp, Richard Holmes and Barbara Tuchmann. It might seem odd to list historians for a fantasy that is not a historical fantasy, but they inspired me by their story telling prowess more than anything else. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is George MacDonald Fraser. His portrayal of his time in nine squad in the CBI (China-Burma-India Theater) in WWII in Quartered Safe Out Here is arguably (and I will argue it) the best memoir ever written of the Second World War. I definitely set out to try and recreate that “band of brothers” feel.

HM: And how long are the series planed to continue?

CE: At the moment, the plan is for the main story line to be resolved as a trilogy, which means Ashes Of A Black Frost will be the third and final book in the series. Ahem…however, there may be more - ok, you knew that was coming, didn’t you? I really enjoy writing the Iron Elves so if fans keep enjoying it as much as they are now I can certainly see more books in the future. Stay tuned.

HM: Do you have ideas on future projects after the conclusion and will those involve military fantasy as a main genre?

CE: Two other series are in the works now. One takes a lot of the fantasy elements we all know and evolves them even further in time than the Iron Elves. There will be a strong military history component again and a focus on the individuals who have to face the enemy on the field of battle, but with even more twists than I have in this series, and a greater development of personal relationships. Sorry I can’t be more specific, but it’s still a bit top secret.

HM: I am completely enamored by your decision to use narrative characters to let your secondary cast shine through as more fleshed out. How did you come to this decision and how much of a calculated risk was it for you to do it with a debut?

CE: I suppose it was a risk, but I just found it an interesting way to illuminate characters that might otherwise fade into the background. The obvious and standard approach is to have point of view/narrative characters be the main players, and to some extent I followed that, but I was curious about how I might subvert that and have some of the secondary characters come to the fore without having to add additional POVs and wind up with a complicated mess. I think I’m most happy with the pairing of Private Alwyn Renwar and the dwarf, Sergeant Yimt Arkhorn. The vast majority of the fan mail I receive say Yimt is their favorite character, and to me that’s both a vindication of this somewhat unorthodox approach, and also a compliment to Alwyn’s character as it’s through Alwyn’s eyes that we see and experience Yimt. I’m not sure Yimt would resonate as strongly as he does if his world view wasn’t filtered through that of Alwyn.

HM: Okay, I am personally interested in the constant power shift between characters. So far Alwyn is taking the lead as a powerhouse, but are we to expect a new change?

CE: I’m afraid I can’t tell you much about Ashes Of A Black Frost as I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but I can say that much more will be revealed about Her Majesty’s Scribe Rallie Synjyn in book three. Alwyn still has a large role to play, and Major Konowa Swift Dragon will be front and center, but as in the other two books I do like the variety and newness of switching the focus on characters. My hope is that my readers appreciate it as well.

HM: Now let’s discuss writing. What’s your routine, when you are involved in a project and do you consider yourself a stream of consciousness kind of writer or the meticulous planner?

CE: Usually I get up around six, go for a run in Central Park, shower, have breakfast, surf the net for news, then write for an hour or so before starting my work day. I’ll often squeeze in another hour or two at night. As for how I approach writing, I guess I’m somewhere in the middle between no planning and plotting everything out in advance. I like to have a point that I’m aiming for, but how I get there I leave somewhat to discovery as I write. I find it keeps things fresh.

HM: Every writer’s dream is to ditch their day job and write for a living. In the current state of the economy how likely are you to achieve that?

CE: For pretty much everyone the odds are very high. And the fact that the world economy is struggling right now only makes it tougher. It’s always been challenging to make it as a full time writer. And while it might sound paradoxical, my goal has never really been to quit my day job. I love being an editor. It’s a genuine honor for me to work with military veterans and help them tell their stories. My true dream is to discover more hours in the day so that I can continue to edit and write. If all I did was write I think I’d go a little bonkers, well, even more so than I am now!

HM: Can you hand out some advice to budding writers? It doesn’t have to be a grand wisdom. A grain of experience of your dealing with the publishing industry suffices.

CE: The first one is the easiest - the harder you work the luckier you get. If you want it then do everything in your power to make it happen. Turn off the tv, quit surfing the internet, read like your life depends on it, write every single day, and repeat.

Then there’s the mantra - read, read, read - and try books out of your comfort zone from time to time. Take notes and understand why something you read made you angry, or excited. Just be aware of why and how something worked, or didn’t, when you read, and make note of that when you sit down to work on your manuscript.

Finish what you start. No one is looking for a half-written manuscript. If you want to be treated as a professional then be one. Editors can spot authors who aren’t really ready from a mile away, and that’s a surefire way to get a rejection letter. The temptation to rush something out there is hard to resist, but you need to if you’re going to make the best first impression you can. There are so many great resources out there to help there’s no reason you can’t be polished and prepared if you’re willing to make the effort. And when you do finish your manuscript, celebrate your accomplishment by starting a new novel. One book wonders are for people who win Super Bowls or divorce movie stars. Don’t constantly revise and rewrite the same novel year after year. My first completed novel remains unpublished, but what I learned while writing it proved to be the stepping stone to the Iron Elves series which launched my career.

Understand what you want. Sounds simple, but it requires asking yourself tough questions. In my case, I want to be a successful writer, and for me that means accepting the fact that I’m part of the entertainment industry. I freely admit that I am entirely okay with the concept that I write for my enjoyment, that of my fans, AND that I get paid to do it. It’s that last part that gets some folks all wound up. It leads to the false and rather pointless dichotomy of the “artist” versus the “hack”. The true auteur versus the commercial…hack. I saw the same bifurcation in academia, the scholar versus the “popular” historian, and it’s all a bit beside the point. I enjoy the high and the low, the humorous and the serious, the urbane and the broad equally, and for entirely different reasons. I don’t want to eat steak every day, or hamburger, nor do I just want to read only the most literate or only the most bawdy. I like variety, and I suspect most readers are the same. I suppose all this boils down to one simple axiom - know yourself and what you want (and want to achieve,) and then be ok with it.

Don’t take criticism personally, unless you really want to, in which case go ahead and use it for fuel. Some of the greatest achievements in the history of civilization began with the words “I’ll show them…”

And most importantly, enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t love to write, then you’re in for a long and painful road. The thing is, the road’s equally long and painful even if you do love to write, but you won’t really care because you want to do it and can’t think of anything else you’d rather do.

HM: Please, feel free to conclude this interview with your own finishing touch.

CE: I’d just like to thank you again for the chance to talk with your readers. It’s easy to get jaded in this business, especially when you’re an editor deep in the belly of the beast like I am, so opportunities that let me talk directly with other fantasy readers renews that spark in me I’ve carried around ever since I was a child and started reading about elves and magic. It’s a great feeling.


Hagelrat said...

great interview guys, really interesting. :)

Harry Markov said...

@ Adele: Thanks for stopping by and giving a shout out. :) We appreciate it.

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