Saturday, February 27, 2010

[Interview] Blake Charlton author of Spellwright

Who: Blake Charlton

Bio: Debut novelist and medical student, Blake Charlton is a new face in both fields working to establish a dual career in fiction and medicine.

Currently, Blake is writing fantasy novels, science fiction short stories, and academic essays on medical education and biomedical ethics.

Work: Spellwright Trilogy [Spellwright - March 2010]

Why: I have been hearing about 'Spellwright' for ages [well, since August] and then Blake has been an excellent and friendly chap, who has been a Twitter buddy. His blog is bizarre in the good sense and his writing is enchanting. And he is a doctor. Is that not a reason enough. Behold the funny interview that suddenly became serious.


Blake, thank you for agreeing to my small torture session. I hope this interview doesn’t scar your mind beyond repair [readers, he signed release forms. I am not liable.]

I called in to put a neuro surg room on notice. We’re all good to go.

Let’s get straight to be point, Charlton. You have written a novel about a young man who has a disability approximating severe dyslexia, and who must come to terms with his disability. You yourself are dyslexic. I bet everybody asks you this, but it is inevitable. How does one triumph over dyslexia to join a profession in which dyslexia makes it darn impossible to break though in?

I am starting to get that one a lot. And, to cut right down to it, you’re asking about how one overcomes a significant disability. It’s tough to answer, because almost every disability is a mismatch between one’s abilities and one’s environment. Here’s a fact that drove this home for me: because its orthography is so spectacularly, mind-blisteringly illogical, English produces more dyslexics than languages with logical orthography, like Italian. Analogies for this ‘abilities and environment mismatch’ idea exist for many, but not all, other disabilities. To further muddle things up, most every combination of individual abilities and environment is unique. One the biggest challenges I have and continue to face as a disabled person is the lack of others in the same situation. The strategy that has helped me the most has been to pay keen and honest attention to both my abilities (or lack thereof) and my environment. Everyone has to work around their weak points; that’s also true for disabled folk, just more urgently and emphatically so.

Also, I absolutely have to hand most of the credit for my successes to my friends, teachers, and (most especially) family. I am very aware of how privileged I have been to have a family with the determination and financial means to help me through my disability. My desire to give back to the world that gave me so much inspired me to pursue medicine as a career.

In Spellwright cacography (the protagonist’s disability) spawns dangerous consequences that can destroy property and harm others. Do these catastrophes waiting to happen in your made-up world reflect a metaphorical message that although outwardly harmless to others, real world dyslexia is a serious issue in our culture, driven by information?

Quite the opposite! Both technology (spellcheckers, voice recognition, etc) and recognition of dyslexia as a valid diagnosis needing early educational intervention have enabled many dyslexics to overcome their disability. I would never be where I am today if I hadn’t been part of ‘generation zero,’ the first group of learning disabled students in the US to be systematically evaluated for dyslexia and then separated into a special ed classroom. I have the greatest respect for dyslexics (and people with other disabilities) who learned how to adapt to their demanding environments without systematic help.

Because the likeness between Nicodemus and you [on a certain level; I bet you do not need to save the world from an epic war {or do you?!}] did you not hesitate to reveal so much of your personal self in that character? Writers are usually private people and not the center of attention [usually, not wanting to be it], so wasn’t baring your trials and tribulations scary for you? Ultimately, where did you draw the line between him and you?

Nicodemus operates in a world that is larger-than-life when compared to ours. And you’re right that there is a strong biographical element in the creation of his disability. When I write him, I mine my own struggles with disability—the frustration, the triumphs, the self doubt, the quest to find meaning in the face of disability. This is Nicodemus’s single most unique feature and likely the most memorable feature of my life story. So it’s natural that folks see him as a sort of translation of myself into a fantasy book. But other than sharing the same essential personal crisis, we do not share the same personality.

Admittedly, a personal crisis is a major force in developing character, but it is not the sole determining factor. Nico is a more circumspect person than I am. His “character voice” is more subdued than mine. He’s more sympathetic, more risk averse, and more likely to keep his head down and do ‘the safe thing.’ (It’s likely a good thing he’s less inclined to puns and lewd jokes than I am.) Of course, situations conspire against Nicodemus that force him into larger-than life dilemmas and allow him to shine. So, in ultimate answer to your question, it’s by distinguishing between personal crisis and personality that I’m able to easily divide myself from my protagonist.

One ancient bit of advice is to write what you know. So you wrote what you know about, thus creating Nicodemus. But you are also a man of modern medicine. Do you see yourself doing a novel with a medical undertone?

At its heart Spellwright is most definitely biomedical. The original inspiration for the world came to me when I was an undergraduate studying biochemistry. I was amazed by how much nucleotides and polypeptides are like written languages. It’s a bit metaphorical, but if you squint at these biopolymers, you can see that they consist of letters and words that might be translated or transcribed. They might be rendered useless or harmful by a misspelling—a mutation. That last idea, that a misspell might cause a disease, struck a chord in the part of me that had been struggling for so long to decrease the number of misspells I produced. It was then that I conceived a world in which the written word could become alive. The story I spun in that world was derived from my struggles with dyslexia. But in writing the story, I found myself drawn to study other conditions such as blindness and epilepsy. First as an educator then as a medical student, I gained clinical knowledge of some of these conditions. More importantly I saw how my students and patients learned to cope, in both a practical and psychological sense. I saw a lot of things that were upsetting, at times heartbreaking, but I saw a great deal that inspired. And, as all authors do, I mined what I saw for material for my fiction.

Speaking of medicine, I know a few friends who hope one day to be called doctors and as far as I know studying to become a medical professional sucks the bone marrow out of a person. How do you manage to advance in this field, write and involve yourself in the promo circus around your debut? I sense a cloning facility involved [and nobody will tell me].

It is all very taxing. But there are plenty of medical students out there who are also starting a family, or physicians who conduct research while attending in the hospital, or full time parents who also write novels. In my opinion, it’s a matter of excluding distractions and filling your life with only the things about which you’re passionate. When you really do love something, it allows you to put in the extra mile, stay up an hour longer, write that next sentence.

The clones help, but they can be a real bother. I mean, when you got a bunch of white bald guys in white coats wondering around…well, it’s only a matter of time before one of them goes all Lex Luthor and we have to put him down. *Sigh* Good henchmen are so hard to find these days.

Is ‘Spellwright’ your very first novel or do you have misshapen literary carcasses littering your past?

SPELLWRIGHT was not only the first novel I wrote, it was also the first bit of fiction I ever attempted. The story of how I was first published is pretty strange. At 21 I started out on the story. Naïve about the publishing industry, I threw myself into the novel. I was exceedingly fortunate to find an agent who encouraged me to rewrite the work. Later I sold it to an editor who bought the book with the understanding that I’d rewrite major parts of it. It means that in some form or another, I’ve been working on this book for nearly a decade. It’s been a long and very strange journey.

There are so many magical languages that pop up through ‘Spellwright’ and I am hopeful that there will be more surprises to come. Can you foreshadow a bit what can readers expect in SPELLBOUND like for instance when the book will be published? Seriously, I need to know.

Even a third year medical student knows that wonky prognostication can get someone in real trouble. So I’m gonna have to stick to the facts alone of SPELLBOUND. Many authors are able to write their second book right after they sign the contract for their first. Medical school and the medical licensing exam put a freeze on my book two until last September. But since then, my research fellowship has allowed me to focus on writing. As of today, the SPELLBOUND manuscript sits at 77,000 words and is coming along nicely (knock on wood). I’m expecting it to come in at, or maybe a little above, 120,000 words.

Without spoiling, I can say that this book takes place in and around the Spirish City of Avel. Much of the action concerns the Spirish Hierophants, whose magical language can move within cloth, and once cast out of cloth it creates a powerful wind. So far, I’m having wonderful fun exploring what could be done with such a language. There are the obvious, mercantile applications, such as providing thrust for naval vessels. But hierophants would also be able to create elaborate kites to allow them to glide within strong winds, and write serpentine warkites to protector the cities, and craft airships capable of flying authors across great distances. I’m looking to do a bit (but not tons) more world building, explore the economic and cultural effects the magic-system has had on the different kingdoms. This time round Nicodemus shares the stage with a character named Francesca, a young physician whose wit and too-clever-by-half mouth gets her into more trouble than she can get out of. I can’t be certain that things will stay this way--story being the most liable to revision—but SPELLBOUND is likely to have less technical development of the magic-system, and more romance, action and intrigue.

Let’s say that you are short on money and suddenly I pop up as a magical money-paying publisher and say in a most glorious voice ‘I will give you money and you will write me a novel to my desire and device’ and the novel will be historical paranormal romance between a Catholic nun and a shape-shifting unicorn, where the most exciting thing is the nun sneaking from the monastery to meet the unicorn in the forest. And the love is more platonic and the zenith is when the characters touch their hands. Would you do it, if the pay would make all the financial woes go away?

In a heartbeat. And I’d titled it “Shifto the Unicorn and the Platonic Love Nun in the Quest to Pay Off Blake’s Student Debt.”


Aidan Moher said...

Really liking what I'm hearing about SPELLBOUND! Great interview guys!

ediFanoB said...

Hey guys, great interview!
Thanks Blake for information about SPELLBOUND. "magical language can move within cloth" ..... "serpentine warkites" .... "airships" Blake, you know how to lure your readers :)

Harry Markov said...

Aidan: Coming from the master interviewer, I am honored.

Michael: Yes, I cannot wait to read this one.

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