For this week's post, I'm just going to share the podcast I got to do with Sean Grigsby on Cosmic Dragon. Enjoy!
Building on my last blog entry, in which I interviewed the narrator of Steel, Blood & Fire, Christopher Selbie, I thought I’d continue in that vein and hold a Narrators’ Roundtable. Here, my panel discusses characterization, accents, warm-ups, ventriloquism and favorite swords. And – Allan’s editorial comment, here – don’t make too much of their evident humility. They’re all amazing at their jobs!
1. How many times would you say you read a book in its entirety before you’re ready to begin recording?
Usually twice. Once as a reader, just to enjoy the mood of the story, and then another to make my notes. I sometimes make notes during the first read if I’m struck by a very strong voice or passage. Other times, I do a “third” read, by rereading whatever I plan on working on that day.
There is a wide spectrum of practice on that score among narrators. I know narrators who read a book no less than twice—once for enjoyment, as a “regular” reader, then once to make copious notes. I also know narrators who don’t read the book at all, either because they’ve narrated so many titles they understand the forms so well that they feel they don’t have to, or because they’re so busy that they pay someone to pre-read and prep the book for them. I read a book once through, making notes on everything from character traits to point-of-view to pacing. I’d love to be able to read a book through more than that, but I’m not an especially fast reader, and I do this for a living, so I have to limit the amount of time I spend on each project. I find it an advantage, in fact, to be less familiar with the text than I’d be with a play script (which are far shorter in duration than the average fiction book and which one typically rehearses for four weeks). The element of discovery is vital to a compelling reading, and not knowing every word of a manuscript means I’m discovering some of right along with the reader.
I begin by reading the book quickly in order to get a handle on the style. Reading quickly allows me to get a sense of what sticks out initially. Thereafter I read and re-read each chapter slowly making notes.
2. What is the longest amount of time it’s ever taken you to find the “right voice” for a character?
For some characters, I’m still looking. Seriously, I’ve done a character or two I was never happy with. But, generally speaking, it only takes a few minutes to come up with a character voice, once you’ve read and understood the story. If you can calm down and allow yourself to concentrate and trust your body to relax into the character—even though it’s voiceover, you’re still better off feeling the character bodily, rather than strictly mentally—it’s usually a pretty short process to concoct a character.
The hardest ones are the “cameos” that come with little or no description. Those you have to make up completely, out of nothing.
The longest time I have spent in finding a voice for a character is two days but usually a voice emerges as I read the book.
A few minutes. Or, sometimes, when I’ve gotten a little ways into their voice, I’ll suddenly want to change it, so I’ll stop and go back before I get too far in.
3. What’s the least?
Like I say, it’s a few minutes. Occasionally, you run across a character you missed during your preparatory read, and you just come up with it on the fly. So, seconds. Milliseconds, really.
A couple seconds? For some background or one-off characters, I’ll breeze through them.
See previous answer.
4. Have you ever been haunted by/obsessed with a character such that you wished he or she was a real person?
No. That’s weird.
I assume you’re asking that from a writer’s perspective. I don’t mean to be arch, but if a character is really satisfying, really exciting to you, he’s real enough in your portrayal. You’ve already experienced him (or her) pretty fully.
Of course! It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I’ll find myself thinking about them for days on end. Very distracting!
I have never been haunted by a character but I can see the characters in my mind’s eye and so they are “real” people to me.
5. Have you ever been so taken with the world of a story that you wished you were in it?
Is there something you’d like to discuss about your life, Allan?
Again, part of the joy of acting is living through the characters. If a world speaks to you that much, you’ve pretty much already inhabited it. And this one’s interesting enough that I, personally, don’t long for others. Though I could do with a few less Republicans.
I always want to be part of the world of the book. It helps me treat the story with respect.
Yessss. More than characters. My brain goes off and writes a completely different story. I adore and despise those moments because, again, very distracting, but on a grander scale. I have a lot of practice in daydreaming about this very subject.
6. Who, in your opinion, are some of the great voices of all time – not necessary in audiobooks, but ever (think Orson Welles, etc.)?
Hoo boy. A long time ago (not too long, I’m being dramatic), The Chronicles of Narnia was narrated by…a lot of different people. I think they changed narrators with each book, and I’m quite sorry to say I can’t recall a single one of their names. However, I adored all of them. Listened to those cassette tapes whenever I could, and that’s what started my interest in this, I guess. But! If I have to pick a specific voice, I’m going to say David Paul Scofield, because I grew up listening to him narrate The Chronicles of Narnia when it was redone as a radio drama. Giant cast, sound effects, the works, yet I always marveled at the fact that Mr. Scofield managed to hold my immediate attention with his delivery of the non-dialogue text. He, and the narrators before him, gave me my love for audio-everything.
(I also enjoy Cecil Baldwin’s work on Welcome to Nightvale. What a voice.)
Wow. I don’t think about that much. Upon reflection, I’d have to say I really admire Mel Blanc. He not only had a rubber voice, but what he improvised about some of those characters—the things he came up with—were truly inspired. He didn’t just do voices, and he didn’t just create great characters. He created whole psychologies for those creatures.
But I love Orson Welles, too. There was so much behind his speech. Authority, and intelligence, and massive bravado.
Great voices would include Orson Welles, Ian Holm, Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith.
7. What are some of the factors you consider when voicing a character – tone, pitch, pacing, accent (dialect), speech impediments, etc.?
Yes, all of those. I rely pretty heavily on accents, because many of them come easily to me. You do learn to explore the other aspects of speech you mentioned, though, because not everyone speaks with a readily-detectable accent.
The factors that influence my choice of a voice for a character are age, gender, accent, pace and speech impediments (if there are any).
I think it changes for me each time I take on a new project. I’ve come to be less critical of myself when I don’t sound the way I want to sound as I listen to the playback. I focus more on how the character would deliver the words, so dialect and tone first and foremost, I think.
8. Have you ever had to age a character’s voice over the course of a novel? What’s that like?
Yes! I find it to be one of the easier parts of narrating, strangely enough. Starting off as a naïve kid, growing up into a young adult, and then, usually when devastation strikes, something kind of drops into the character’s voice that just feels heavy and world-weary. Listening to that transition is very fun for me.
I don’t recall that I have, but that wouldn’t be hard, assuming you’re comfortable with playing age vocally. It would be mostly a logistical issue, tracking what age the character is at any given point in the book, that would be the toughest part.
I have never had to “age” a character, but that would be an interesting challenge.
9. Being bold and intrepid fellows, I’m sure there isn’t a genre out that you wouldn’t tackle; however, is there one you feel best-suited to?
It’s a good question, because publishers and fans alike seem to put a lot of emphasis on genre—for obvious reasons, I suppose. From my perspective, though, genre is immaterial in the face of a well-crafted story. Any story well told is a pleasure to narrate, whether it be about a hard-boiled detective or a space explorer or a shape shifter. It really is about the telling, not the subject.
That said, I gravitate toward thrillers: God, I love intrigue, and a good action scene. I also happen to like anything with broad characters. I just narrated a vampire romance, believe it or not, which is something I would have never sought out. The characters were so distinct and well-drawn and character-y, I had a blast narrating it.
I feel I am best suited to either classical novels or fantasy. It allows my imagination full range.
Haven’t quite found my niche yet, sorry to say.
10. How would you like your voice to be thought of by your peers? What would you like the “word” on your work to be? If someone were to compare your voice/readings with one of your peers, what would make your voice stand out?
I have no idea. Soothing? Maybe? I’m not sure what would make my voice stand out.
I hope people think of me as an actor who embodies characters well, who elicits the emotions and feelings the author wants from the listener. I guess the single word I’d like associated with my narration is “deep”. “Arch” might be another one. I love sarcastic humor—the subtler, the better.
I would hope that my voice would be considered “engaging.” But in all honesty, I feel my voice is not distinctive.
11. Is there a favorite, world-famous author you’d like to read for?
Vince Flynn. If he weren’t gone.
World famous? No. An author? Yup. James Kennedy. He wrote The Order of Odd-Fish, which still stands today as one of my favorite books. Also, M.M. Kaye. And Dianna Wynne Jones.
I would love to read Dickens.
12. What is a secret about your work that most people misunderstand?
I can give the first impression of being an elitist—which, humorously, in my mind, I am, but only as a parody of myself. I’m really more interested in finding common ground and in letting people be who they are, just being a witness, without judgment. That’s a much more relaxing stance, and I love it. But we’re all in such a rush.
I suspect that people think I am energetic but actually I am extremely lazy.
Hnnn. I’ve had people say I must have a lot of fun all the time narrating. Not. True. I don’t have fun when I mess up. Bleh.
13. Do you score your work like a musician or do you just take general notes and go from there?
Depends on the book. For the longer, more complicated ones with a lot of characters, I mark up a lot of things in the book, and in the audio file. For shorter projects, general notes are good enough for me.
I note everything said about a character and every “stage direction” the author gives about how anyone says anything. I underline and highlight and draw arrows, all in the service of giving myself as many cues as I need to read the story aloud, accurately, compellingly, without stopping. As actors, you and I have an instinct, I think, for when things are turning dramatic, or tearful, or jocund, so I don’t generally have to make notes on pace or tenor. Many narrators do that, though, I think, so talk to me again in a year.
I use a combination of techniques, dependent of course on the task. I do treat the book as a score and make copious notes in the margins. A shorthand if you like that makes no sense to anyone but me.
14. Do you ever hear your own voices in your sleep?
No. I question your psychiatric stability, Allan.
I have never heard the voices in my sleep only when I am painting or at my desk.
No, thank goodness.
15. Have you ever paid homage to an old acquaintance by doing an impression of him/her in your work?
All the time.
I often use the voices of people that I know, but they can hardly be called impersonations.
16. What’s surprisingly hard about what you do?
Consistency of a character voice. I struggle with that.
Honestly, prep. Getting through the book the first time. Not every book fascinates you and, even with those that do, there’s still toil involved in getting through it. You have to use a dual mind when preparing a book, as I suggested before, in that you have to read it as the entertainment it is while, at the same time, picking apart the elements that make it entertaining. You can never fully just be carried away by the story, and you can never stop paying attention to how the narrative is sweeping along. Some narrators do read books more than once, focusing first on enjoyment, then on analysis. I’m just not that fast a reader. Like I said, I just don’t have time.
The difficult in what I do is ensuring that I read the book for the listener. Creating word pictures, I call it.
17. Who is someone in your field of whom you’re in awe?
George Guidall, Grover Gardner, and Robin Miles are three who spring to mind. Preternatural ability to narrate a book like they wrote it. Fiction or nonfiction—doesn’t matter. As comparatively small as the narrator community is, there are many truly accomplished storytellers out there.
I listen to a lot of different genres and narrators, so I haven’t locked on to someone yet. In one of my other fields, radio drama (I have a lot of fields, man. I’m a very restless person), I’m going to say Zach Valenti. Impressions, accents, he does it all.
(Pondering the question…)
18. Can you provide a link to something you think of as your best work?
My favorite thing to have done recently, I did under a pseudonym. Besides that, though, there are several things I think are good, clips of which you can listen to here:
I…don’t know what constitutes as best. We are our own worst critic, after all. I’ll give the one I recently did, that was very fun, because I’ve never narrated in the horror genre before:
19. Do you do a lot of vocal warm up and articulation stuff, or is your voice just naturally ready-to-rumble?
Weirdly, it depends on the time of day! In the morning? Oh, definitely warm up. But when I narrate late at night, I’m ready to go. Really strange.
Interestingly, the more I narrate, the more indispensable a certain warm-up becomes. Lips and tongue need to be warmed up, for me, though I’ve developed a routine that minimizes the time I have to devote to it. And some material lends itself to speaking slowly enough that you can concentrate more on articulation as you narrate, so you don’t need as rigorous a warm-up. That’s nonfiction, mostly.
I very rarely do vocal warm-ups…but I do a few raw takes and play it back to myself just to be sure I am centred.
20. How young were you when you started fooling around with silly voices, impressions, etc.?
At the age of four, I was delighting my parents with a JFK impression. I was hooked from there.
I have always fooled around with silly voices from a very early age. I also listened to a lot of radio (I still do) and often repeat phrases to myself.
Young. My brother and I would put on puppet shows, I’d read from plays, quote characters from my favorite tv shows, movies, cartoons…gosh, I got into this super early.
21. Ever try ventriloquism?
Yes! As a child. I was very much into magic and fooling people and the wonder of those gentle mysteries. I studied ventriloquism ardently for a time but could never get the hang of it.
I have never tried ventriloquism.
Once. It ended in humiliation.
22. Have you ever listened to a reading or watched a film, heard a voice, and thought, “that just ruined the whole experience for me?” That happened to me with The Polar Express. The actor voicing the fat kid is a middle-aged man who plays a lot of nerds in Hollywood, and his voice was a) instantly recognizable, and b) jarringly familiar in a cast of unknowns playing close to their characters’ ages.
I know exactly who you’re talking about, but it didn’t ruin the experience for me. But yes, I definitely have. It usually happens when I hear a voice that can’t maintain an accent/dialect.
I’m sure I do that all the time, without even thinking of it. I’ve certainly heard some narrations which didn’t serve the story (more in nonfiction, interestingly).
Inaccuracy with accents always puts me off regardless of the subject matter.
23. How often are you asked or expected to provide foreign accents, and how often do you practice those?
I take on projects that specifically don’t ask me for many accents beyond a few of the ones in my repertoire. Ask me to do an accent on the fly, or on a stage? Not too shabby! Ask me to read it from text for a book? Fail. I don’t understand it.
It happens less often than I’d like because, as I mentioned, I love doing them. I kind of walk around the house doing accents for myself—just saying things that come into my head in this or that voice or accent. I think a lot of entertainers do that, just to entertain themselves. In the case of an accent I have to learn, it’s a couple of days to get it into the system. Once you “feel” it, then it becomes part of what you do, and it’s added to the collection of speakers accompanying you around the house.
I have several foreign accents in my vocal kitbag but I only practice them if they are needed.
24. Does it ever bother you that, unlike many actors, most people will never see your face or know your name (unless, you know, you become KING of AUDIOBOOKS)?
I guess it does bother me, because I continue to pursue an on-camera career. But, frankly, audiobooks are now so popular, people will listen to anything a given narrator does simply because they like the way he/she narrates (to which I can relate, since I have favorite narrators, too). And everything is now a niche market—we don’t all go see the same blockbuster movies and follow the same universe of stars anymore. So, while it doesn’t happen nearly as often now that everybody knows your name, it’s not so uncommon to develop a certain following.
Nope. But! I’m also an actor, so.
I am grateful that the listener cannot see me. I enjoy the anonymity and strongly hope that my voice does not get in the way of the listener. The book is all that matters.
25. Are you really just in it for the groupies?
How did you know?
We get groupies?
I am in it, not in it for the groupies, just a decent bottle of red wine.
26. Unrelated question: you all have experience with swords – stage combat, Aikido, Dungeons & Dragons, etc. Do you have a favorite or dream sword? Why?
I’m trained in both stage combat and Aikido. When I was doing combat a lot, we used these beautiful rapiers crafted by a guy out in Colorado. Deceptively light—they didn’t need to cut anything but had to be sturdy enough to smack against other swords—with these gorgeous, basket hilts and outsized pommels. Just a pleasure to hold and swing around. More recently, and sort of at the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve been using Japanese katana—“Samurai swords”, as most folks would call them, though they’re modern and never met a samurai. Good God, are those things sharp. I’ve practiced tameshigiri with them—“test cutting” of rolled up tatami mats. Beautiful swords, but lethal. I’d love to have an authentic samurai sword.
At drama school I trained in combat both armed and unarmed. My acting career has largely been based in classical theatre and so have had to swash and buckle on many occasions. I have also had the opportunity to work with some excellent fight choreographers. I love it! My favourite weapon is and always will be a medieval broadsword.
Ulfbehrt. Had to do a report on swords when I was doing stage combat, and this guy? Was a blade of beauty. Give me that over a katana during the zombie apocalypse any day. Sorry, Michonne.
So, I’ve known you for thirty years – happy man-i-versary, by the way – but I’ve never heard the story about how you got started in theater.
Happy maniversary to you, too. We met all those years ago when my hair was my own! How I got started???? Cutting a long story short I did not come from a theatrical background. My father worked at an oil refinery and my mother was a housewife. In fact, my father could barely read or write. From a very early age I indulged in amateur theatricals and school plays but I always wanted to work as an actor. At the age of 18 I gained a place at Birmingham University reading drama but after one year I realised I wanted a training as an actor not an education in theatre and so I gained a place at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and spent two years there before graduating and moving into professional employment as an actor and Director.
All of my directorial jobs were exciting and challenging, be it as the Associate Director at the Old Vic in London, as an Associate Director at the Chichester Festival Theatre or as Artistic Director of Compass Theatre Company in Denver as well as directing "Antony and Cleopatra" and "The Taming of the Shrew" in London's West End. They brought with them highs and lows but I cannot single out one position that brought me most satisfaction. The hardest role I played was Vincent Van Gogh in my one man show "A Certain Vincent." Hard because in a one man show you are out there on your own and it is impossible to hide! As for awards, I am not fond of them. I have been the recipient of "Best New Theatre Company" and "Best Classical Production" (Cyrano de Bergerac) and "Best Actor" (Iago) but have sometimes felt that those do not necessarily reflect what I feel were the best. I am left with an acute feeling of what I didn't do rather than what I did.... One symptom of restless perfectionism.... Something we all endure.
You’ve played a number of the theater’s most iconic roles: Cyrano de Bergerac, Iago, (and…?). And I know you have a special place in your dark little heart for Richard the Third. But what is or was your all-time favorite? I know you’ve mentioned Lear. Is that the one role you’re dying to play or is there another?
I have played many classical roles since I love classical texts. Cyrano de Bergerac, Iago, Richard III, Cassius, Fagin, Smike (in Nicholas Nickleby) Quasimodo and Hamlet. Richard III is and will always be my favourite. Indeed, although I am a rabid supporter of the real Richard I have managed to play the role on three occasions. Lear remains the final mountain to climb but I doubt I will get the chance.
The swordplay in your Cyrano de Bergerac was very impressive. Having played the role myself, I don’t think we ever approached the speed or creativity you did. How much training have you had with swords and/or what is the standard regimen in English drama schools?
I have worked with some extraordinary Fight Directors and Combat both armed and unarmed is standard in training in the UK, as well as horse riding…. It can make the difference between getting cast or not in historical productions or films.
Have you ever been wounded onstage?
I was wounded only once when I played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.
Some actors place a sword in their hands and a red mist descends…..They must be avoided for your health’s sake. Stabbed in the ribs… Slight pain and then I got off stage I found I was bleeding and it wasn’t the blood capsule I used. The actor and I have remained firm friends despite his act of lethal insanity.
You’ve crossed paths with a lot of famous folks – Lawrence Olivier, Alan Rickman, etc. – can you shed any new light on these legends? Which of them surprised you the most in private? Who was most down-to-earth and who was most impossible?
Most of the famous actors I have worked with display an enormous ability to observe. Their process is quiet and composed. They approach their work like a very skilled surgeon, delicate, obsessed with the text and self-assured. They all possess extraordinary technique both vocal or physical and they always take huge risks. It is like feasting with panthers, the danger is half the excitement.
There appears to be more overlap between stage and television in England. Do you have aspirations in that direction?
There is great overlap between those forms and I am longing for the chance to explore that.
We used to talk for hours about Black Adder and, in particular, Baldrick – a character I think you could have played as well as the original actor (whom you’ve met/worked with?) Any stories there?
Regarding Black Adder I have no tales to tell. As Iago says… “I never shall speak word.”
You do a lot of different dialects in Steel, Blood & Fire and once coached me in Yorkshire. Do you have a favorite? Is there one you avoid?
As for accents, there was a lot of emphasis placed on speech and voice in my training. As importantly we were made to train the ear. Once you can listen you can break down an accent into its components. I don’t personally have much difficulty with accents and have no favourite but the hardest is the North-Eastern accent known as “Geordie.”
Have you watched Game of Thrones on TV? If yes, what do you think of the story, the dialect work, etc.? If not, what the hell’s wrong with you?
I have NEVER watched Game of Thrones. I prefer to sit on one. I feel at home there.
As a child, you were hit on the head with a loaded bedpan and have mistakenly been a Broncos fan ever since. Have you considered corrective surgery?
I was never hit on the bonce with any implement but I did entertain dreams of being a starting Quarterback for the Broncos. But, since I am metrically challenged (5’ 5”) they have never invited me to training camp. Shameless, don’t you think?
Yes, well, enough about that (Go, Seahawks!). What drew you to this project, narrating Steel, Blood & Fire?
The sheer scope and invention of the project was instantly exciting. The books are an amazing accomplishment of imagination and style. I always begin by trying to create a thumbnail picture in my head of the character and usually voice becomes clear. The narrative I just relied on my own voice. Without doubt the hardest voice to invent was "Anders." I did not to want to rely on any melodramatics but once I found him he became the most enjoyable company. Since I have moved on to the next book it is like meeting up with old friends. I just want to engage the listener in one more adventure.
Thank you, sir. You’ve been most generous with your time and energies. The audiobook sounds fantastic, and I look forward to hearing more!
For those interested, you can listen to a sample here:
Here, fellow author Ulff Lehmann and I try to out-grimdark each other, one sentence at a time -- his are in plain font, mine, italicized.
Matthew knew from experience that waking up with a hangover never was fun, even less so if one woke up hungover surrounded by a bunch eviscerated corpse.
But that was how they celebrated a man’s coming of age amongst the Norfii; that, and devouring a lion fetus drenched in wine.
That last bite of lion must have been bad, he decided.
As he got to his feet, he realized they were covered in boots made of human flesh – at least he’d gotten some use out of those corpses.
Kicking in his new treads by kicking the flopping entrails out of his way, he strode out of the cave.
It was night, always and everlastingly, fucking night.
Unless it wasn't fucking night, which boiled down to some 5 days in a moon.
Well, Matthew had work to do, grim work.
Having new boots was but one of the perks of becoming an adult in the eyes of the elders.
And, speaking of eyes, he had a jar full at home that were only missing a blue pair.
Blue eyes were rare, a bitch to find, and people kept them for both sentimental value and working magic -- he just wanted his collection complete.
Where to find, them, though?
Down south and west, the day-dwellers were said to have blue eyes, but they were sex maniacs, so finding virgin blue eyes was a bitch.
Coincidentally, his own mother was also a bitch, but she didn't have blue eyes.
In addition, father did not like mutilating family members, unless he did it -- selfish bastard.
Fortunately, Matthew knew of an orphanage nearby that might have an blue-eyed virgin or two.
The moon hung low on its gallows, damn fucker deserved no less.
Making his way to the orphanage, Matthew passed an ancient pair of vagabonds rutting in the street like rats; well, new vagabonds had to come from somewhere, didn't they?
It was only when he had passed them, he noticed the audience of real rats preparing what looked like score cards.
He considered stomping the life out of the little vermin, but didn't want to scuff his new flesh boots.
Still, he decided he'd settle the score with these rats, eventually.
He was getting distracted; eyes on the prize, Matthew, eyes on the prize!
In this case the prize was eyes, but eyes on the eyes sounded rather silly, even without saying it out loud.
Soon, he spied the orphanage and began to fish the ocular trauma device -- his spork -- out of his pocket.
His people had a few traditions, eviscerated corpses when one came of age, virgins’ scalps on a bad hair day, and a spork on the day they were born -- they wore the spork until receiving the first set of baby teeth on a necklace, then it went into the pocket.
So, the spork wasn't the problem, it was the damned pocket, which, like the pockets of all other Norfii, was magically linked to the those of everyone else in the community, making it fiendishly hard to find what one was looking for, but also to resist the temptation of examining others' possessions, like the dried kitten he was currently fondling.
Pocket communication was rather muffled, and in a night such as this, slipping out of one's pants left one rather dangling in the wind, so he continued to fish around.
Suddenly, something -- or someone -- grabbed his arm, and he felt a violent tug, yanking him into his own pocket, through a universe of unspeakable objects and trash out back out into the semi-fetid air of...where, exactly?
The light shining at him made identification of the place difficult-- a moment later, as his eyes adjusted, he realized the glaring blaze was nothing more than a big candle, flickering off a sword's polished blade.
In a panic, all he could think to do was blurt out, "I didn't do it!"
"Do what?" a voice said, and then added, "Stupid bag of holding, got cross-wired again with the little folk."
Squinting into the gloom, Matthew realized that he was one of the "little folk" in question, as the figure in front of him was easily twice his size.
Twice his size, and that was just the leg... he tilted his head back and saw somewhere in the distance, about as high as his lord's keep walls, the head of... the fucking big folk.
For some odd reason, all Matthew could think was that he was smaller than this giant's penis.
Now he thought about how it was to be fucking a big folk woman.
He'd get even more lost in her than he had in that so-called "bag-of-holding."
Maybe not all was lost, he had heard about this tale where one would have to squeeze eyes real hard and tap one's heels and say "Get me the fuck out of here" magic would take one back home, only he had to sacrifice all the eyes in his IBag.
With hope in whatever passed for his heart, he performed said ritual, only to discover that "home" was his mother's house, and he was a pimply, red-headed fat kid with a mouth full of dental hardware.
And a bed which harbored way too many BDSM magazines underneath the mattress.
Q. How do you feel modern fantasy (by which I mean fantasy written today) jibes with the "Me, Too" movement, if at all, as women are so often portrayed as the objects of action instead of the actors themselves?
A: I think the objectification and infantilization of women is something one continues to see throughout literature and other forms of media. The damsel and the shrew are still the most prevalent female archetypes one sees, followed by the female warrior. However, I also think a sea change has been underway for quite a few years, and authors have more awareness that giving their female characters agency is a goal of good writing.
What you don't see often, at least in my readings, are female characters who hold positions of power in a routine way. Female leaders (political, military, economic, etc.) are still presented to readers as unusual or special.
Q: Can you point out a few authors/books who ARE doing this well?
A: I spent some time thinking about an answer to this question. Two authors who receive a lot of flak for their treatment of female characters, but who I think do a good job presenting women: are GRR Martin and Peter V. Brett. Both include episodes of sexual violence against women (and boys/men) in their work, and both have been criticized for these scenes being gratuitous or sensational and not having any real bearing on the plot or character development. I disagree, and I think Danerys being married to Drogo at 13 (in the book) and having to figure out how to not only survive as a child bride in an arranged marriage to a violent and callous warrior but to thrive and triumph in it, was essential to her development as a woman who can turn every situation to her advantage. Meanwhile, because Brett's work includes polygamous relationships (as well as incest and sexual assault), he's been accused of writing male fantasies. I disagree because his female characters consistently demonstrate they have agency within the constraints of the society they live in. [And, I'll have to finish this later because we're going somewhere.]
Q: Haven't read any Brett, but your GRRM answer is interesting. Yes, he is often accused of even hating women, but, as you say, Danerys is triumphant. I do wonder, though, because while I know many women who read GRRM, I've never heard one say, "The sex scenes are so awesome." Don't know that I've ever heard a man say that, either. I mean, are they even necessary?
A: Regarding whether the sex scenes are awesome in Martin, I'd ask, do they need to be? In real life, sex in a committed relationship is often perfunctory. It can be nice, but it isn't mind blowing every time. It's not necessarily even romantic. In ASOIAF, the only loving relationship between equal partners in the book is between Ned and Catelyn, and there is a really nice, realistic (to me) scene from Catelyn's POV in the beginning of the first book, which comes in right after they've finished. After that, almost every other sexual encounter is coercive, perverse, or otherwise taboo, which I imagine Martin does deliberately, to show the rottenness of Westeros. One exception is Jon and Ygritte, whose lovemaking was sweet and innocent--but then their relationship, like so many others, is founded on lies, so it's corrupt at its core too. Regarding the gratuity of the sex in Martin’s work, I also think people tend to conflate the sometimes absurdly gratuitous sex in the HBO TV series with Martin’s books. There isn’t anywhere near as much sex in the books as appears on the TV show. There are no brothel scenes with Peter watching his employees “practice” in the book. Tyrion and Shae have a lot of sex in the books, but that’s important to show how Shae hoodwinks Tyrion into falling for her so utterly. And most of the sex scenes between other characters are not explicit—there’s a lot more foreplay and morning after material than there are outright descriptions of the act.
So, in my view, the sex doesn't have to be "great." Martin isn't writing porn, he's writing fantasy about the struggle for power and resources between different political entities and different species. The sex scenes advance the plot and/or develop characters, and I don't find them gratuitous. In fact, if every sex scene was "hot," I might be more inclined to feel they were there for the sake of sensationalism rather than plot advancement.
I wanted to finish answering your original question, which was to name some authors who do a "good job" presenting female characters. One little-known indie author whose worldbuilding and storytelling I found really interesting, especially in her first book, is E.P. Clarke. In The Midnight Land, She created a society based on pre-Christian Russia in which women hold all the political and social power. That in itself isn't terribly unusual, but what I found interesting is that she didn't make the women Amazons and the men weaklings, which is what you usually see in books where the women are on top. The men in her world are still bigger and stronger than women, but instead of this being the foundation for their societal power, it's the reason why they lack power, because of a the societal belief is that "men are brutes" and too violent and stupid to be trusted to do anything requiring thought. With this foundation, she goes on to show how female leaders can be just as corrupt (or incorruptible) as male leaders. The Me Too question applies to her work as well, because she shows how women as well as men may use sexual harassment and sexual assault are used as tools of subjugation, which is really what they are. I guess my point is, if women routinely held the reins of power in society, they would be just as likely to do good or evil, as male leaders. We see this really well in Martin's work, as the reigns of Danerys and Cersei develop.
Q: Ah, okay, so let's revert to the more-traditional for a moment: who are some of your favorite heroines and villainesses?
A: Hmm, well, one of my favorite heroines is Rebecca from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. She is stalwart and unflinching in her passive resistance to Brian's designs and desires, and (spoiler) her refusal to yield causes Brian to sacrifice himself to save her. Tenar from the Earthsea Cycle is another heroine I've loved over the years. She's another traditional heroine in the sense that, at least in the Tombs of Atuan, in which she's a teenage girl, she could not or would not have broken free from the Old Gods without Ged's influence and help. In Tehanu, however, the mature, 30- or 40-something Tenar steps into the role of hero (rather than heroine--I see these terms as describing the narrative roles of protagonists rather than being strictly gender-related). In Tehanu, she assumes the role of mother and protector, and she is the primary force in keeping the title character, a young girl named Tehanu, safe from the people who want to use her or hurt her.
I can't really name a villain that I "love." I really don't like villains--I love it when authors show me things from the antagonist's point of view and give me some way to identify with them, but then that person really isn't a villain any more, is she/he? I do like Cersei in HBO's GOT, but I hate Cersei in ASOIAF, because in the book she's stupid and boring. In the TV show, she's written as being much more clever and much more interesting.
In case it's of interest, here's a blog I wrote describing my ideas about how hero/heroine shouldn't be used to refer to the protagonist's gender, but rather their narrative function in the story.
Q: I think your hero/heroine argument is fascinating, and I understand what you're getting at. I wonder if it isn't just a question of semantics. I have some very strong female characters who are actors -- rather than being acted upon. I also have one notable male character who I suppose would fit your heroine role, but whom I just think of as having less testosterone, less need to show off, and is a great deal more sensitive. He's also a character of fluid sexuality, so I wonder if I'm subconsciously writing to some stereotype, although I see him as a very real person.
A: I think it's really hard to write male characters as sensitive souls and not have readers interpret them as weak, because our collective idea of male strength is centered on the courageous fighter/protector/warrior archetype. I suppose it could be to a degree hormonal, and then reinforced by societal bias that rewards males who embrace conflict (whereas females who wade into fights continue to be censured UNLESS they prove themselves twice the combatant of their male competitors). But we all have biases against compassion and empathy in males. Even when stories are about physicians or artists, they're nearly always portrayed as brilliant assholes (more or less). The truly nice guy is rarely the hero of any story (unless it's a comedy), although some of my favorite fantasies do feature kind-hearted males as the main hero (LOTR, the Earthsea Cycle, and the Demon Cycle [though Arlen is very pro-human and not at all compassionate toward the demons who are trying to wipe out humanity]). In A Wizard's Forge, I was playing with tropes and so I gave the prince in that novel all the stereotypical attributes of princesses in fairy tales and fantasies: he's beautiful, kind, and smart, and he sings. But even I couldn't leave him like that, because I too have an internalized bias against heterosexual men that aren't conventional tough guys--so I had to prove Ashel is tough, and I put him through double hell and had him hold tight to his principles and goals to prove it.
Q: Well, I suppose improvement starts with awareness, no? We're thinking about these issues, at least, and trying to write better, more well-rounded characters who don't conform to these age-old tropes.
A: Exactly. I think we've come much farther with women characters in that they have a broad palette of acceptable roles in stories now, be it queen, serving girl, warrior, merchant, mage, etc. You still see complaints about how all too often the plot puts the "strong female character" in need of rescue by a male character, but at least women can BE anything in stories. In fantasy, it seems like male protagonists still tend to be warriors or fighting magic-wielders. They're rarely peaceable scholars or pacifist healers. Of course, I'd love for your readers to correct me on this. Perhaps I'm just not reading the right books.
Here's my website: www.amjusticeauthor.com
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Austin Tichenor is the co-Artistic Director of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, an accomplished actor and director, and the author of the book, Pop Up Shakespeare
Mr. Tichenor's a busy man but was generous enough to allow me to interview him about his thoughts on violence in Shakespeare, the relationship between horror and comedy, and more.
I’m wondering if you have any ideas about the continued popularity of his bloodiest works. Certainly, Hamlet and Othello are popular for other reasons as well, but there seem to be an inordinate number of Macbeths and Titus Andronicuses (Andronici?) these days. Has anything changed in the last 400+ years, and, if not, why not?
I may be the wrong guy to ask about this as a little gore goes a long way for me. But I think it all goes back to that old saying — I think Shakespeare said it first, in fact — “if it bleeds, it leads.” In that sense, I’m not sure much has changed in 400 years.
I just saw Hereditary the other night, and it was full of gore (in its late stages). Why do I feel as if I needed that to be part of the story? Should I seek immediate help, or am I normal?
I can’t help you with your need for gore.
I’m sure you’ve heard that Game of Thrones is loosely based on The War of the Roses (Lancaster/Lannister – York/Stark). What’s your take on that? Does Martin succeed, does he transcend his source material (blasphemy!), or does he miss the mark in some way?
One of many reasons I love Game of Thrones is that yes, it was partly inspired by Shakespeare’s history plays, but its success inspired the producers of The Hollow Crown to think that filmed versions of Shakespeare's Henriad and the Wars of the Roses would be popular and successful. And they were right — Richard II in particular is definitive, and the Henry VI plays are greatly (ahem) reduced but they’re a great introduction to the little-produced plays (and fantastic back story to Richard III).
Does violence in Shakespeare and/or Martin somehow enhance the story, or does it get in the way? Could you even do Macbeth or Game of Thrones without the bloodletting?
I’ve never seen Titus onstage (except for our reduced version), but I think the appeal of that play is absolutely about the blood/gore/violence — that’s its point. Macbeth, as you point out, has more going on: I just the saw the Chicago Shakespeare production (co-directed by Penn Jillette’s partner Teller) and it was relatively blood-free, except during Lady M’s mad scene (“out, out, damned spot”) when, in her delirium, the more she rubbed her hands the bloodier she got. It was a fantastic effect (and the actress was terrific: I interviewed her here).
I have my own answer to this, but who do you think is more evil, Iago or Richard III?
Isn’t evil like the word unique in that it can’t be modified? Not sure who’s more or less evil — what I find powerful about them is their seductive and witty charm. Iago seduces Othello but I don’t think we really root for him; on the other hand, we do root for Richard, because his great soliloquies get us on his side. Maybe that makes Richard more evil — he enlists the audience as his allies.
I actually think a) there is such a thing as more evil – compare the man who murders his wife to the man who commits genocide, for example – and b) Iago is “more evil” simply because his motives are less clear, and it’s entirely possible he does what he does for the hell of it. Richard, at least, is playing for the crown, however ruthlessly he does so. (Allan's note: Austin didn't get a chance to respond to this comment -- just me being sneaky.)
So, is this current craving for violence cyclical? Will we eventually swing away from it and into some bizarre neo-Restoration Comedy?
I would love it if we cycled back to Comedy, neo-Restoration or otherwise. It always boggles my mind that comedy isn’t more widely regarded as artful. And whenever we perform our show The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), there are always a few nutters who complain that God shouldn’t be mocked but have zero problems with Mel Gibson’s torture porn in The Passion of the Christ. It’s okay to celebrate the story of Jesus through violence but not laughter? That’s insane.
Here’s something I’m SURE you know about: comedy. Why is comedy in the midst of horror so effective? Think the Porter in Macbeth, or, say, all of Evil Dead II. The last Equity production of Titus Andronicus I saw was very campy and definitely played for laughs in its most gruesome moments. Why does comedy make it better?
You're right! I do have thoughts about this. Horror and comedy are incredibly similar. They both rely on the creation of tension, then the release — whether it’s a laugh or a scream. In horror, the scream is usually followed by a laugh, because we’re acknowledging that we knew it was coming and we fell for it again.
Can anything horrible be made funny? I did stand up for nine years, and I never heard one joke about abortion. And yet I have this feeling we’re going to get there eventually. Is anything too taboo to be joked about?
I don’t think there’s anything you can’t joke about, but, that said, if you’re making jokes about sensitive topics, they better be pretty damn good jokes. When people complain about jokes being made about a recent tragedy, my response is that the joke is not the problem — the problem is the problem. Sometimes a joke gives us power when we feel powerless. (Second City once did a sketch about a creepy guy trying to pick up women at an abortion clinic. Very disturbing, but very funny.)
My favorite combination of comedy and horror is Shaun of the Dead. Perfect combination of comedy, horror, and heart (and yes, also guts and spleen).
Why do I get the feeling that if executions were public, people would still show up to watch, even in 2018?
I think you’re right about executions, but fortunately I don’t think the public would stand for them now. That’s one difference between now and 400 years ago. Though with Trump in office, who the hell knows what’s going to happen.
For more on Mr. Tichenor, please visit:
How did you get into your craft? What inspired you?
People were not doing medieval sheaths right, and I started there. Then it was putting handles on others blades, then making my own- swords were just a logical extension of that process. Very few people at that time were making swords that really felt like the antiques I had handled.
How long have you been at it?
I started researching medieval weapons in high school, but really didn't start making them until well after I left the army- say around 1992.
What was the first piece you made and how does it compare with your current work?
I dunno- some kind of knife, probably, something small. Maybe an eating knife for SCA events or some such. Pretty crude by my current standards.
What is your favorite type of weapon to make and why?
Honestly, I am not sure I have a favorite. I do enjoy the more elaborate, detailed pieces like saexes, Scottish dirks, Viking swords and the like.
How long do each of the different types take to create?
Wow- way too many variables there for a meaningful answer. Most knives take a day or two, most swords take 2-3 days. There are exceptions- sometimes a piece goes very fast or takes longer than anticipated.
What's more fun: designing or making?
There's a difference? I typically start with an idea or type and design as I go.
Are your weapons combat-worthy or are they more for display?
I make real weapons, and they will do anything that can be reasonably expected of a weapon of their type. People use them all the time for uses ranging from cutting trials to martial arts to theatrical use.
What is your all-time favorite piece and why?
Wow- I've made a few thousand blades over the years; I can't remember them all, let alone pick one!
Your craft sounds potentially dangerous. Have you ever been injured? What was the worst injury?
Yes, tools that cut steel don't do good things when they encounter flesh. I suppose the worst was when the buffer grabbed a dirk I was polishing and drove it into my leg about an inch-and-a-half. That was not fun.
What are some common fantasy-writers misconceptions about swords?
Number one would be that they were heavy. Seriously- if the best sword you could make was heavy and clumsy you'd fight with something else. Medieval swords were the end result of about two-thousand years of development; they were sophisticated and very well-made for their use.
Is there anyone in your field that you admire and/or has served as a mentor for you?
There are a lot of people that I admire in this field. Chuck Sweet and Ike Roe gave me some very useful pointers early on, and Gus Trim and I have sort of mentored each other.
In your opinion, what is the best movie for accurate medieval-style combat?
Movie fighting is a very different thing than real fighting, so I tend to judge movie fighting by a different standard. Probably the best representation of sword-fighting I have seen on the big screen was the 1974 'The Three Musketeers.' I thought 'Gladiator' was quite good as well.
What are some of your favorite books?
'Lord of the Rings,' 'Rendevous with Rama,' 'The Deed of Paksenarrion,' are a few, but my all-time favorite might be 'The Paladin' by C.J.Cherryh
I understand you're an author, as well. Tell us about your book(s)!
Yes, my wife Linda and I have co-written several novels and novellas. 'Diaries of a Dwarven Rifleman' and 'Lord of the North' are told from the perspective of dwarves in a medieval fantasy world. 'Rage of Angels' is near-future military SF about what happens when the Earth is attacked by smart aliens. Our novellas 'The Shield Maiden' and 'Tir's Hammer' are historic fantasy. The novellas were published by 47 North as part of the Foreworld series.
You've been a member of various fight-related societies. What is that like?
That's a bit like saying, 'You've driven several cars, what's that like?' Each was its own unique experience.
Okay: power or speed?
Both, if at all possible. If it isn't I'll take speed.
Have you ever sold to anyone famous? What did he/she purchase?
Yes. They bought swords and/or knives.
A careful answer! I like a sword maker who doesn’t name-drop. What's the next rung up-the-ladder in your line of work? What's the next level for you?
I'm not sure; I think I would like to get better at the metal fittings for scabbards.
Do your neighbors ever complain about your hammering or grinding?
Yeah, I suppose to would be unwise to provoke a man who owns a houseful of swords and knives. Where can readers go to learn more about your novels?
Best bet would be to look up Michael Tinker Pearce on Amazon.
I’ll just go ahead and post the link here. There’s really a ton of great stuff to see on your author page.
And here’s the link for Michael’s swords, etc.:
I’m definitely feeling covetous of many of your pieces. Wow!
Thank you, sir. Plenty of material here for a second interview someday! I really appreciate your time!
Waiting for the Sun to Go Down
There is a low hum.
A bit of a hiss.
Like that first few minutes on vinyl before the song starts. You can hear the song churning out low and slow. You are in the dark now. Lying on your floor with those huge headphones on. Around you, the world is still going. You have someone in the kitchen cooking a thankless meal. You have a sour man with sore feet drinking a beer who just wants to be left alone in a rundown chair, threadbare and lumpy. You can still hear the world. The trucks are blazing by your house right close to the highway, and you can hear them now ’cause the music is creeping, the notes so muted you can barely hear them.
But they are there; they have a whispered promise, because your friends all told you this was a good record. You spent the last of your Christmas money on it. You are broke again, but the other kids keep talking about how this is the album. So here you are, breathless on the floor of your bedroom, waiting for magic.
The first hard notes that come to you are bass. The songwriter is just laying this down. Getting a good base coat, like that model you made with your father before he started to hate you, when he wasted all that time applying a primer. The bass hits harder, you feel that chord in your chest. Like the strained beat of the heart attack you will have when you’re 40. Too young to die. Not too young to try. Now the bass seems angry, and you can feel it boxing you in. It is trapping you.
Drums come out like a wildfire you once saw when a bolt of lightning hit a field outside of town. The drums blister the inside of your head like the fire blistered the paint on the road sign. You’re Leaving Small Town, Come Back and See Us. But these drums don’t belong here. Not in this tiny burg. Not in your shamble of a room.
You are realizing now that you are in the dark, the only light the soft glow of the stereo volume button. You stare at it like the pistol in a game of roulette. You stare at it intensely because you are starting to sweat now. You are scared. The music has taken over the room. The music has hold of you. You can feel its humid grip wrapped tight around your body. It’s locking your limbs up. It’s bringing you to trembling. With hate of all things mediocre, you grab the knob and hit the volume as hard as you can. You roll the tumbler. You pull the trigger and when the first yowl of the singer hits your ears, you realize you made a mistake. You are in too deep now. It’s too loud. It’s too much.
It’s never gonna be better than this again. The next time you’re here, you will have heard the album, you will be prepared for it. But the warnings your friends gave when they were in the car after school, bitching about how good music doesn’t make it on the air, were too flat. Those warnings, you did not take seriously. Now you’re here. Now you are riding the edge of a razor of Heavy Metal and you are never gonna be the same.
You thank God your parents gave you your own room when they kicked your sister out. No bratty younger brother is going to come in here and snap on the light. At that moment you know you are a bad person, because even though you will not see your sister until you’re thirty, and she will be pregnant with a stye in her eye, bitching about Reagan, you are glad she is gone. Would have kicked her out yourself if you had known this moment would hit you. If you had known this music would take you.
The first song fades and with the loss of the music, you are panting in breathless anticipation for the next song. Screaming from the start, this song has claws and it grips you tight. Painful in the shoulders, bloody, and it has wings and it flies away with you. It has you in the air and terrified. It has you staring down at your life in disappointment because here, when you are looking down at it all, you know she was not alone when you called tonight. You heard that voice in the background and you recognized it. You can’t compare to that guy. And tomorrow at lunch, she will break the rest of your heart in half. She has been taking a dull cleaver to it for years. Tomorrow, the final blow. The song carries you over all that. It’s a deep pain you will carry with you for most of college.
More songs, more crippling realizations, this album has a diabolical heart. It is a sergeant screaming that first day that you are useless after they shaved your head and called you a pansy. It is the dark heart of your teacher who really thought he would make it in the pros but was cut. He is bitter and trying to fail you. Looking for reasons to fail you. This dark-hearted album is a cruel kid with a BB gun. You are a bird with a broken wing. You are flapping in horror.
The next song breaks upon you like a thief in your house at night. More and more it comes to you. It washes over you as you listen, one tragic horror, one mundane nightmare after the next. When the song drops, like a bomb over innocents, you jump to your knees. You frantically crawl to your stereo, and with hurried, traumatized hands, you flip the album, almost dropping it. The needle falls instead of gently resting, and you hear the record wail out one heart-wrenching beat before the song is on you. No soft hum or gentle hiss this time. The song is in full, deep darkness now, and though you wish you could start it over and catch it from the beginning, you know there is no starting it over. The song has you now. You’re in its grasp.
Tony was a bully you faced in second grade and he never hit this hard. You never felt this helpless when he stared down at you, laughing while you cried. This song is the most hateful thing you have ever experienced, and you are not ready. You are not made of the strong stuff it takes to weather this song. The record keeps dropping on you harder and more devastating than you ever thought possible. And helpless, you can only grip tight to the spiral cord of the headphones and pray for the power to hear the next song.
The song stops like the car your drunk buddy will be driving when it slams into a wall. Your neck will never be the same. And when that car will make that horrid, sudden stop, you will think back to this moment as they load you into the ambulance. This is the song that will be stuck in your head. The next song fades like a road flare sputtering after lighting the area.
By the time the end of the album comes, the record has pulled back to look at you, the music gloating over the ride it just gave you. No roller coaster your father forced you to ride was ever this satisfied after bringing you to tears. When dinner comes, you are late. Your mother did not even call you to the spaghetti. Did not even knock on the door. Now the meatballs are all gone and it’s just sauce. But you barely notice.
All the next day in school you are walking like a shell-shocked soldier. Your friends know, and they are gentle with you. They know better than to ask if you want to go steal a six pack and sit out behind the drive-in, honking the horn during the serious parts and laughing. Because every one of them knows you will not come. You will be at home after school, waiting for the sun to go down on your dingy house. Because all day long, they know you have been thinking about your headphones. And the soft glow of your stereo.
This is what it is like for me to write a dark fantasy novel.
This is what I miss during my time off.
I’m just waiting for the sun to go down.
Jesse is the author of Hemlock and other books.
If you’ve ever experienced the dreaded party wipe in gaming or in literature, you know how devastating, unfair and unnecessary it all seems. Yes, yes, and no. It is devastating, and it is cruel. But it’s entirely necessary.
Many years ago, I was playing Diablo (One, as it turned out), when I heard about trainers – software downloads that allowed a character infinite lives, infinite money, etc. It sounded like a good idea at the time, so I quickly attached the trainer to my game and…almost immediately lost interest. You see, without the threat of death, the cost, and without the gradually doling-out of increased wealth and equipment upgrades, the game – or the novel – is robbed of its dramatic tension and suspense.
Okay, you say, sure. But a complete party wipe? A Red Wedding? Yes. It’s the same concept on a larger scale. If such events don’t happen every so often, the world in which they transpire won’t seem quite as deadly and, ironically, as real. Because these things do happen in the R.W. Consider the French and Russian royal families. Or the Alamo. Or the 54th Regiment at Ft. Wagner. Or Custer’s Land Stand. Okay, in retrospect, that one was gratifying, but I’m certain it wasn’t so gratifying to the relatives of those lost. And there are smaller, more relatable tragedies – entire families lost in car crashes, botched burglaries, etc. I don’t mean to suggest these events are remotely entertaining; rather, I hold them up as things that do happen in life and must happen in fantasy.
We’re a funny people, we readers and/or gamers. We’re willing to believe in elves and aliens, but ask us to accept a world in which the “good guys” never die? No. Effing. Way. And that’s because, on some level, we need it. We’ve all lost loved ones; we all will. We know that life can bring boundless joy, but also despair. Even in the midst of experiencing that boundless joy, some of us are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And the ancients knew it, too. Look at Greek Tragedy. Or Elizabethan and Jacobean. Oedipus and Hamlet have to die. Siegfried, too. And this brings us what the Greeks called “Catharsis” – a purging of pent up emotions, thought and proven to be healthy for the viewer. And again, it rings true. Lincoln was assassinated. Gandhi and MLK, too. The hero dies. Of course, I’m not advocating for this in the R.W. But I’m saying it happens. Too often.
Sometimes, though, it gives rise to another useful dramatic device: revenge. While it’s not always socially acceptable, revenge is something most of us crave at one time or another, but are not always able, for whatever reason, to execute or obtain. So, it satisfies something rather dark within us, some sense of schadenfreude, to see it carried out in fiction and in games. And perhaps it prevents us from caving in to our baser impulses.
Now, sometimes, an author will bring the hero back, an event, of course, that does not happen in real life. Heck, I’ve even been guilty of this device. But it has to serve a purpose, to fit into the larger narrative. And there has to be a cost. What will it be for Jon Snow? I can’t begin to guess, but I am certain it will be both awful and profound.
Just as it should be.
Greetings, I am fantasy writer Richard Writhen. Allan Batchelder suggested that I write a piece for this blog that addresses some of the myriad inspirations that led to the formulation of my works. No one can list them all, but I will attempt to scratch the surface. To begin with, let me just say that the influences that eventually become evident in one’s work are going to be different for every artist. No two people have the exact same signature, or fingerprint, just as each individual human being’s tastes in food or entertainment are going to be different. I remember getting into my uncle’s comic book box when I was a kid; I would spend hours looking through them, including old Starlogs and Vampirellas and magazines of the like. He even had a hardcover copy of Stephen King’s It floating around. In hindsight, it may have been a first printing. But I only flipped through it at the time, as it was only later that I could cognitively consume prose. I saw so many eighties genre films when I was a boy: The Return of the King, Cat’s Eye, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, Fire and Ice, Wizards, the Black Cauldron movie, Starchaser: Legend of Orrin, The Goonies, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Beetlejuice. I saw The Thing, Clash of the Titans, Dragonslayer and Excalibur for the first time on the videodisc format.
I read The Lord of the Rings when I was around 13 years old, actually after I had read more of Stephen King and Clive Barker’s early work. I had seen the Rankin Bass film years earlier in the mid-eighties. I read Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg in my early teens as well and was quite taken with it. I had also gotten more and more into comics, my absolute favorite being Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. With hand-painted covers by Dave McKean, that title was like nothing I’d ever read. It’s first real miniseries, The Doll’s House, effectively altered what I felt could be done within the medium. I was also quite taken with Dan Brereton’s The Psycho, Gotham by Gaslight, The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, and Tapping the Vein. I didn’t read the Watchmen graphic novel until years later, when I heard that the film would soon be coming out. I had greatly enjoyed Zack Snyder’s version of Dawn of the Dead and wanted to see what he could bring to what is considered Alan Moore’s masterpiece. I also got into the Gladstone EC reprints, possibly aided and abetted by my love for the original Creepshow comic book tie-in by Bernie Wrightson. Around the turn of the millennium, I bought my first dvd player so that I could play the New Line Cinema special editions of Fight Club and Se7en, which I had just about worn out on VHS. They were very extensive, the FC one going so far as to include both domestic and foreign commercials for the film. I went on to become something of a film buff, but that had really started on VHS; I went through a long exploitation film phase where I saw such films as Irreversible, Cannibal Holocaust, Nekromantik, Naked Blood, In a Glass Cage, Funny Games and the like. But if you want to see a real masterpiece … Cannibal! The Musical. Trust me on this one.
A friend loaned me The Alienist in 2011 or so. At the time, I was actually working in Manhattan, so it was kind of funny to read this Victorian serial killer story and then half the locations were familiar from my day to day life. It was epic; I enjoyed the sequel even more, The Angel of Darkness. They both have a very grimdark tone. I also began to read many of the Barnes and Noble classics that I could afford at the time. The Call of the Wild, Heart of Darkness, Ivanhoe, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist. My sense of dialogue is probably most influenced by Richard Price and Dennis Lehane. If you want the best, the most fluid and believable dialogue, most of the time you need to go read a crime fiction novel. Characters in those kind of books for some reason talk just like people do in real life. The three Price books I’ve read are Lush Life, Bloodbrothers and Clockers. The two Lehane books I’ve read to date are Mystic River and Shutter Island. All are highly recommended, and the dialogue is first rate. Some modern novels have been very influential … A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay, We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson, The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie, Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, and Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher to name a few.
Oddly enough, I also take influence from other mediums as well, such as the visual arts and even some forms of music. I am a heavy metal enthusiast and listened to a good deal of it while writing my first three novellas. I’ve mixed it up with soundtracks in the past year or so as I work on my fourth one and a lot of short stories. Paintings influence me; I like the baroque period best. The darkness and the heavy religious themes such as the saints, martyrs and deities echo my work and that of other comparable dark speculative fiction writers in a way. All that stuff soaks into one’s prose and colors it, flavors it, and hopefully makes it more entertaining in the long run. So just to catch up to the present, I’m currently working on my fourth and (possibly heaviest so far) novella, The Angel of the Grave; the projected release date is May 1st, 2018. Also, my first three novellas are available on Amazon KDP if anyone is interested; I also have a decent variety of free content and reviews on the web via my WordPress site and various other blogs. Thank you very much and see you around the web!
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Too many ideas, not enough time!