Today I am talking with a dear friend of mine, author Stephen Swartz. Along with myself and twenty other authors, Stephen is a founding member of Myrddin Publishing. We have been down a great many rough roads together since those early days of taking the plunge and leaving our former publisher. Not a day goes by that I don’t communicate with him in some way, and he always has a way of making me laugh.
His most recent novel is an ambitious project called EPIC FANTASY *With Dragons which was just launched. I had the opportunity to be a beta reader and liked the book in its proto version very much. I am enjoying the book in its final form immensely. The world it is set in is barbaric and exotic. Corlan is a solid character, a great protagonist who is unlike most squeaky clean, modern heroes. In a purely human way, Corlan has faults and blind spots. But he attracts an odd assortment of people, wonderful characters who force him to see the world more realistically. In his travels, Corlan becomes a worthy hero, but never loses his human nature.
CJJ: EPIC FANTASY *With Dragons is an awesome title for the book. Your dragons are most definitely not the friendly sort of dragon Anne McCaffrey wrote about. How long did you toy with the idea of this book before you began writing it, and what made you decide to embark on such an ambitious project?
SW: The fact is the title was the first thing I thought of. Because I was challenged to write an “epic fantasy” I started with that as the title, more of a spoof, I suppose, but also a focus. I imagined poking fun at the tropes of the epic fantasy genre. Of course, that’s not what I ended up with: it was not a spoof but a serious work of daring-do over a harsh landscape.
I had never been a fan of dragons as a story element. Too many dragons were cute, affectionate, like pets to humans, or the opposite: dragons hoarding gold, talking to humans. I couldn’t deal with those. So I went full biologist and reimagined dragons as perfectly wild beasts following the laws of physics and biology. Then I let them be nuisances, then terrors. I imagined a life where dragons constantly flew overhead, snatching children and livestock, setting thatch roofs on fire, depositing their waste everywhere. People would not put up with that for long. Hence, the need for “gamekeepers” to keep them in check.
As is often the case for me, I had an image in my head, the opening scene. It had to be a fantasy world. Some guy doing his thing in that fantasy world. So I thought of dragons flying by and there is our hero, sitting on the side of a cliff shooting them down. And then what happens? I thought for about a month, then continued: he goes home and faces all kinds of trouble, a bad weekend in the city which ends with him being banished by the prince.
Now that I’ve finished Epic Fantasy *With Dragons, I’m finally reading McCaffrey’s books. Long ago, when I was a child, I showed my mother a story I had written and when she said it reminded her of The Hobbit, I swore never to read The Hobbit so nobody could say I got my story idea from Tolkien. Now, however, we do research. Even so, I don’t think my take on a dragon tale is like any others that I’ve read or heard of.
CJJ: The works of yours I am most familiar with, Aiko, After Ilium, and A Girl Called Wolf are contemporary fiction, set in our real world, as is your vampire novel, A Dry Patch of Skin. You’ve also written an epic Sci-Fi series, The Dreamland Trilogy. This book is a real departure from those novels, as the prose is far more formal and literary. Corlan is a compelling character, and the story moves along at a rapid pace, but I would say it is not a quick read. What kind of reader were you writing this for?
SW: I began writing science fiction, which was what I read as a child and teenager. I transitioned into magical realism by the time I entered an MFA program in college. There we were supposed to write literary fiction, introspective stories of real people in a real world. So that became my focus. There are good things and not so good things about each genre, something that satisfies me when writing each but also challenges for each genre. It comes down to the story: Is it better as a real story in a contemporary setting or as a sci-fi story in an invented world? I usually do not have the choice; the story comes to me already set in the genre it wants to be.
The novels you mention had some basis in my own reality. For Aiko I lived in Hawaii and then in Japan. After Ilium began with me studying Classical rhetoric and the epics of Homer; I transported Homer’s ancient tales to a modern setting. A Girl Called Wolf is really the biography of a friend; I felt her story of hardship growing up in Greenland would make a great novel. I encouraged her to write it but she gave up and insisted I write it for her.
One thing I did learn in that MFA program was that all stories are about people – not the setting, or the technology or the aliens or the dragons. That made a big difference in the writing I’ve done since then. So in Epic Fantasy *With Dragons I focused on my protagonist, making him a real person with real problems but also, as per the epic fantasy rules, some dark secrets, some stubbornness, and some talents. The Dream Land Trilogy, although sci-fi, also focuses more on the characters and their relationships than on the interdimensional doorway and the world they discover and come to rule. Perhaps it is all a matter of growing older myself and experiencing relationships. Who knows?
With the epic fantasy genre comes the criteria: a strange landscape, a variety of odd characters, a quest, and a lot of words to get the reader to the destination. When I began, I decided to aim for 200,000-plus words. I was half joking at first, just like with the title. But it really did not take so long or was too much effort to put that many words on paper. As a quest tale, the right number of episodes would naturally add up to the designated word count. I wrote quickly and did not linger to write lavish descriptions of places or a character’s fashion; I kept my focus on action, dialog, and moving to the next scene.
Like everything I write, I try to do two things, with regard to readers: give them a story that is compelling and within the criteria of the genre, and do something different, enough different, to make it not the same old thing they have read before. I think I’ve achieved that with Epic Fantasy *With Dragons. There is a deeper story that gradually boils to the surface by the end. I hope readers will enjoy the familiar elements of an epic fantasy and then appreciate how I’ve toyed with those elements to make some new and different.
CJJ: Now we get to the question I really want to know the answer to. At what age did you start reading, and what books influenced you most as a young reader?
SW: Being the child of a pair of teachers, I began reading at an early age. It wasn’t too soon after I began writing my own stories. They were comic strips at first: drawings with dialog. Then I dropped the pictures and added more words. All my teachers liked the stories I wrote, often having me read them for the whole class. In 7th grade I invented a superhero: Micro Man who could shrink himself to get out of tight jams. Everyone awaited the next episode every Friday. As a teenager I read sci-fi and fantasy…as well as some of the unabridged Classics on the shelves of my house. Ben Bova, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, Damon Knight are the authors I remember always reading. Plus Homer, the Russian novelists, especially Dostoevsky, and some Italians like Dante. And I tried to write better stories than what I read. Or at least as good: “Write the stories you want to read.” That’s what I do.
CJJ: How did these books influence your early writing?
SW: Aside from some stylistic tricks and some phrasing quirks from the authors I named, I was shown many (more) ways of seeing the universe than I ever could in my simple world of Missouri. And that’s the reason we read, especially sci-fi and fantasy. Technically, I still use the “two-fer phrase” (He dipped the cup into the stream, drank it.) that I learned from reading Zelazny. I got a literary lesson on how, in a conflict, the side that seems morally right at first glance is not always morally right, courtesy of Moorcock (The Eternal Champion). As an only child who spent a lot of time entertaining myself, I loved reading and writing. Now I teach others to enjoy reading and appreciating literature and to write academically and creatively.
CJJ: I like that. In the opening chapters of EPIC FANTASY *With Dragons, Corlan is possessed of that raw self-centeredness that many of Roger Zelazny’s protagonists embodied. Do you ever take a vacation from writing? Do you have a current work in progress?
SW: The only vacation from writing I take are the agonizing weeks between projects. I might slip into a depression, fearing I’ll never write again. Maybe I’ll have no more ideas. Gradually an idea will emerge from the vagaries of daily life and once again I become excited at inventing something that did not exist before. I’m in that slump presently but I will soon be able to get back to work on something.
Work-in-progress? I hesitate to mention it because that in itself might prove to be a spoiler, but I have ideas and a plan for a sequel to Epic Fantasy *With Dragons. I have tentatively titled it Epic Fantasy 2 *Without Dragons. Now that the dragon situation has been resolved, our hero will turn to problems in the north. We will also learn more of the War of the Five Princes…mapped out in 1973, long before George R. R. Martin thought up his Game of Thrones.
CJJ: What would you like to say in closing about EPIC FANTASY *With Dragons?
SW: EF*WD started as a spoof, then became a serious tale of a quest. Then began the painting of patina of philosophy under many of the scenes, letting characters discuss the issues relevant to them and by extension to all of humanity. That is why I remarked at the close that I had said everything I wanted to say. And that, I believe, is something of the requirements of the epic fantasy: to make a statement about the human condition (without being preachy, of course) that gives the reader far more than a simple quest tale with action and romance. Perhaps that’s what I like most about writing fiction: juxtaposing the mundane reality of our present world with the vivid possibilities of the fantastical world and finding somewhere between them, in the cracks, a few universal truths. Then I can sit back and muse: “My work here is done.”
Stephen Swartz, thank you for stopping by and talking about your work and especially about this wonderful new novel.
Stephen can be found blogging regularly at Deconstruction of the Sekuatean Empire, where he discusses all aspects of his travels and writing life and also illuminates the darker corners of the craft of writing.
EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS
CORLAN, MASTER DRAGONSLAYER, the best in the Guild, the best in the Burg!
And yet, returning from his latest expedition, Corlan discovers jealous rivals have conspired
with the Prince to banish him from the city.
Sent into the Valley of Death, Corlan conjures a plan. He and his new sidekick, a runaway boy
from the palace kitchen, will trek the thousand miles to the far end of the valley, where a vast marsh provides nesting grounds for the dragon horde. Once there, Corlan vows to smash dragon eggs and lance younglings, ending dragon terror once and for all time.
And yet, as dangers, distractions, and detours harry him along the way, Corlan learns ancient secrets that threaten to destroy everything in his world. Even with the aid of wizards and warriors, he must use all his guile, his bravado, and the force of his stubborn will just to survive – and perhaps return home – no matter how the gods challenge him with their harshest tests.
Stephen Swartz grew up in Kansas City where he was an avid reader of science-fiction and quickly began emulating his favorite authors. Since then, Stephen studied music in college and, like many writers, worked at a wide range of jobs: from French fry guy to soldier, to IRS clerk to TV station writer, before heading to Japan for several years of teaching English. Now Stephen is a Professor of English at a university in Oklahoma, where he teaches many kinds of writing. He still can be found obsessively writing his latest manuscript, usually late at night. He has only robot cats.
CONTACT Stephen Swartz at:
STEPHEN SWARTZ BOOK LINKS
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EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS (Mar. 2017)
A GIRL CALLED WOLF (Dec. 2015)
A BEAUTIFUL CHILL (Feb. 2014)
A DRY PATCH OF SKIN (Oct. 2014)
AFTER ILIUM (2012)
AIKO (May 2015)
THE DREAM LAND TRILOGY
BOOK 1: Long Distance Voyager (Sept. 2013)
BOOK 2: Dreams of Future’s Past (Nov. 2013)
BOOK 3: Diaspora (Dec. 2013)