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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Interview with Brian Staveley (author of The Emperor's Blades)


Good morning! Please join me in extending a very warm welcome to Brian Staveley, who has stopped by for an interview in support of The Emperor's Blades blog tour. If you missed my review earlier this week (where I was bold enough to suggest that it just may be the debut of the year!), then be sure to check that out after the interview.

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Q: Thanks for taking the time to stop by today, Brian. For those who haven't yet had a chance to read up on your upcoming release, The Emperor's Blades, please tell us a little about yourself.

A: Thanks for having me! I live in the mountains of southern Vermont with my wife, son, and a rescue dog from Tennessee who, while we were out this morning, ripped into the cabinet and ate a full bag of pepitas and dried cranberries. And the dog is the best-behaved among us.

Most days are spent child-wrangling and writing, sledding and writing, writing and more writing. There are occasional battles with the goat from next door, battles that we seem to be losing in the icy conditions. I spend a lot of time running in the woods, trying to stay in shape for adventure racing, an absurd sport that involves days and days of being lost, cold, hungry, and often hip-deep in a bog.

Q: Hmm, absurd or not, I like the sound of adventure racing! The journey from 'aspiring' to 'accomplished' novelist can be a long one, even when you've had the experience of being an editor and a published poet. When did you begin planning Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, and how did you feel when you landed your deal with Tor?

A: I spent quite a while imagining the world, especially the history and mythology, which were of particular interest. World-building isn't writing, though, and when it came time to crack into the story, I found I wasn't quite sure where to begin. There were a few false starts, one involving a leach hunter (leaches are the magic users of my world, hated and reviled by almost everyone), one involving a torturer, but when I wrote the first few sentences about a monk who was also an emperor being whipped on a granite ledge, I knew I had my way in. That was seven or eight years ago.

I almost fell out of my chair when I learned that Marco Palmieri at Tor was interested in the book. He wanted to talk on the phone, and I wasn't sure what to expect. Was he really interested? Sort of interested? Maybe interested? Casually interested? I prepped for that phone call for hours, laying out all my outlines, all my character arcs, all my plans for the subsequent volumes, wanting to be ready for whatever he asked. As it turned out, the questions weren't all that difficult, but dammit, I wasn't going to miss that boat!

Q: That's a call I think we'd all be anxious to take. In terms of writing, what comes easiest for you, and where do you struggle the most? Is it the title? The first paragraph? The last chapter? The cover blurb?

A: I’m useless when it comes to titles. I churn through hundreds of options, some of which are truly terrible. Luckily, Marco and Hannah (my agent) guided me gently but firmly back to the true path. As for the rest of it, different things seem tough on different days. Sometimes I can’t figure out how to get a character out the damn door in less than five hundred words. Other days, every character develops a weird tic – maybe they’re all grimacing every three lines, or checking their belt knives, or whatever. Fortunately, I don’t mind editing.

The toughest parts of both The Emperor’s Blades and The Providence of Fire were the last fifty pages. I tend to get frustrated with books that simply wrap everything up with a big fight scene. Bad Guy A squares off against Hero A, Bad Woman B squares off against Heroine B, and everyone pounds on everyone else until it’s done. Of course, a fantasy novel needs a good slug of action in the climax – it is necessary but not sufficient. I start to go crazy when I can’t find a way to bring the various plot threads together in a satisfying way. Usually there are a couple of weeks of me wandering around the yard muttering to myself before I work it through. I’m proud of the way the endings of the first two books turned out, but the idea of finishing off the whole series is giving me palpitations.

Q: Well said. Sometimes, characters can take on a life of their own, pulling the story in directions you hadn't originally anticipated, especially when indulging your imagination. Were there any twists or turns in The Emperor’s Blades that surprised you, or really challenged your original plans for the trilogy?

A: There were all sorts of unexpected developments. I had a young Urghul woman named Riah, for instance, who was captured by Annurian troops and forced into a gladiatorial camp. After writing a hundred thousand words or so from her point of view, I realized that she didn't fit in the story I was trying to tell. I hope to come back to her some day!

Q: You've talked elsewhere about how your love of religion, history, and philosophy has influenced your writing. Can you tell us a bit more about how those subjects helped shape the trilogy?

A: Religion permeates the book. The Shin monks, obviously, venerate the Blank God. I drew heavily on Buddhism, particularly the Theravadan branch, in creating the monks. Crucially, however, the Shin do not believe in reincarnation, and the source of their religious tradition is grounded in a history far darker than the teachings of the Buddha.

The book also includes other gods and their adherents: the skullsworn worship Ananshael, the god of death; the Kettral pray to Hull, the god of darkness; and the Annurian emperors are marked by the burning eyes of Intarra, the goddess of light. At first glance, the pantheon, at least in book one, looks fairly straightforward. In fact, it’s quite tangled, as the characters come to realize. Religion in the real world is messy. No one person or group of people can unilaterally define what it is to be a Christian or a Buddhist, a Muslim or a Taoist. People fight over these questions; often they are willing to die over them. I wanted the religions in my world to be just as fraught.

As far as history goes, I spent years teaching ancient world history – wonderful inspiration for a writer of epic fantasy! I pulled on all sorts of things in creating this book, everything from the mysterious disappearance of the Indus Valley civilizations to the building of the Forbidden City in Beijing. There are little pieces of Angkor Wat and Empress Wu and the Greek poleis… Too many historical borrowings to count, really.

Q: Do you have a soundtrack to your writing, a particular style of music or other background noise that keeps you in the mood, or do you require quiet solitude?

A: I can write pretty much anywhere, as long as no one’s talking on a cell phone.

Q: I know the book hasn't yet hit shelves, but what is the strangest or most surprising reaction you've encountered from friends, family, or advance readers to -date?

A: Well, I knew my mom and day would say it was good. The real thrill has been hearing from total strangers – people who won the book in giveaways or reviewers who got their hands on an advance copy – who write to say they stayed up until 3AM because they had to finish. I’d show these emails to my wife, and we’d sort of squint and try to figure out if the person was some long lost friend, maybe my agent’s sister… The idea that people I didn't know at all are were not just reading the book, but enjoying it – that was and is a new and wonderful feeling.

Q: Well, I can honestly swear we've never met before, and I'm one of those early readers who enjoyed it! To turn from pen to page for a moment, is there a particular author who has influenced or inspired your writing? Somebody who either made you want to write in the first place, or who just refreshes your literary batteries?

A: I love to read fantasy, but sometimes I need a break from all the glowing swords and ancient evil. In that case, I turn to non-fiction, history, or poetry. Kay Ryan is, I think, the best poet writing today, and I love reading her work to my twenty-month-old son. I have a whole pile of books on the nature of consciousness that I’m working my way through, and another pile about Buddhism. Unfortunately, now that I’m on a deadline for my own writing, I don’t read as much as I used to.

Q: Understandable - and I think we'd all prefer that you be writing, no offense. Before we let you go, I have to ask the question I’m sure everybody is going to be interested in – when can we expect the second volume of Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne?

A: The second volume, The Providence of Fire, is pretty much done. We’re just working on a few minor edits now, and then it will go to the copyeditor. Irene Gallo (Tor’s art director) and Richard Anderson (cover artist) have produced a gorgeous cover for it. The release date is a year from now: January 2015.

And there you have it, folks. A huge thanks to Brian for joining us today! In case you missed it, you can check out the cover for his next book over at Tor.com, and you can read my review of the first book here.

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Brian Staveley
After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decide, Brian began writing epic fantasy. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades, is the start of his series, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Tor.com has been good enough to release the first seven chapters as a teaser that can be found here:


Brian lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on twitter at @brianstaveley, Facebook, and Google+.

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The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published January 14th 2014 by Tor Books

The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it's too late.

An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test.

At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor's final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out.

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