Rarely, if I really need to get fired up for something or I’m struggling to get something done late at night, I’ll put on some rock or metal. The Who’s Live at Leeds album is a real good one to light a fire under your ass. Favorite villain is definitely Roy Batty, because you understand the motivations behind his brutal actions, and even come to sympathize with him quite a bit. Yet he’s still scary as hell. Honorable mention goes to the Serpent Society from Marvel comics, just for being a bunch of awesome weirdos in snake costumes. I would rewrite the end of the Avengers to include the Serpent Society.
"Favorite villain is definitely Roy Batty, because you understand the motivations behind his brutal actions,
Many newer authors are intimidated by the idea of sharing their work. What gave you the confidence to put your creative projects out into the world and what advice do you have for those who might be nervous about sharing their art?
A little while back you were part of a project to turn one of your stories into a short film. What were some of the joys and challenges of adapting your story as described in prose to the big screen?
I discovered that I love screenplay format. That mode of storytelling really worked for me, just in terms of the way you have to describe things in a visual way, and you have to be concise and clear. I also got to travel to England for more than a week!
"I discovered that I love screenplay format. That mode of storytelling really worked for me,
Writing screenplays is a fairly competitive market, but sometimes the right tool can give a writer the edge on their competition. What platform would you suggest for writers who are interested in adapting their novel for film?
The industry standard is a program called Final Draft. I’ve never used it, it’s damn expensive. That said, screenplays have very specific formatting demands, so you need something. I discovered that Scrivener, a piece of software originally designed for organizing and writing novels, has a screenplay mode with a bunch of shortcuts that make screenplay formatting incredibly easy. And it’s got a very reasonable price. No one has ever looked at one of my Scrivener screenplays and said, “Why wasn’t this done in Final Draft?” I don’t think anyone would know the difference.
"I discovered that Scrivener, a piece of software originally designed for organizing and writing novels,
You are also a part of a band called Spacelord with several albums available on Bandcamp. Do you see writing music and writing SFF as separate creative endeavours or is there cross-over influence in your work?
They’re separate in the sense that there are very different sets of skills involved and totally separate paths to (and measurements of) success. But they’re very connected in that the things I’m interested in and influenced by affect both of them very deeply. My songwriting is heavily influenced by Tolkien and Robert E. Howard and Blade Runner, and my fiction is influenced by Dio and Led Zeppelin and The Sword. And of course every independent creative person is trying to build an audience for their work, and I think there’s a connection there as well. Someone who likes Spacelord is likely to be into my fiction too.
"My songwriting is heavily influenced by Tolkien and Robert E. Howard and Blade Runner,
You wrote an article for Gizmodo back in 2013 titled “What's the connection between heavy metal music, horror and fantasy?” One of my current ‘most listened to’ bands is Brothers of Metal who pull heavily on the Norse myths for lyrical content. Why do you think metal bands are drawn to mythological themes?
"Who better to explore epic mythology than bands whose singers sound like demons or gods, with drums like marching armies and guitars that evoke the mightiest heroes battling nameless beasts from the Underworld?"
You’ve got quite a range of experience when it comes to music and writing. What has been the focus for you recently and what can readers look forward to as your next big project?
On the fiction side, there’s a novel in progress, and some short stories. I seem to bounce back and forth between horror and epic fantasy. On the music side, Spacelord was literally days from starting the recording of our third album when the world ground to a halt. So right now we’re working on an acoustic EP of all new songs, with our guitarist and I sending sound files back and forth so we can get it done without ever actually being in the same place. We’re moving fast on that and I hope to release it by the end of April.
"On the fiction side, there’s a novel in progress, and some short stories.
Where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
Well, I’m pretty terrible at updating my website, so people should probably just follow me on Twitter.
You heard the man! Follow him on Twitter.
Any great villain is relatable. The ones you feel for and almost root for because you can empathize with what they went through. When I see villains who are just dicks and "born this way", I can't get into you. Show me a Venom or a Punisher bad guy and I'm all in. Someone who has lost everything and I'm behind them 100%. John Kramer killed for a reason, and even then, had people kill themselves. John Doe from Seven.
"Any great villain is relatable. The ones you feel for and almost root for
Online presence is a big deal, especially for newer writers who are trying to build an audience. As your website is exceptionally professional, do you have any advice for newer writers who are weighing their options for an author website?
Definitely. Use Leia. It's an app that will build the website for you, based off your preferences. It takes zero skill to learn. The team has been super professional in assisting me where I need. There is a free version I recommend starting off with. From there, you can go pro with the click of a button. My site averages 1,000 hits a month (or more) and I didn't have to learn anything.
Though I am not a regular reader of horror, some of my closest author friends write in this genre. What drew you into the genre and what would you say to a potential reader who is hesitant about exploring horror-themed works?
As a teen I gravitated from fantasy to horror through an author named John Saul. Saul's books were more "Teens discover secret society" and "people with dark powers". I burned through them in a day. Despite his huge library of work, I needed more. I moved on to Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Horror isn't always about gore in books. If the synopsis sounds good, look at reviews. They should give some insight if you're avoiding the genre due to graphic violence.
"Saul's books were more "Teens discover secret society" and "people with dark powers". I burned through them in a day."
Strange Tales from the City of Dust, your serial sci-fi series, is a set of stories about a futuristic version of Pittsburgh which has now become the City of Dust. What inspired this dystopian cyberpunk world and what types of themes do you enjoy exploring through your stories?
The main things I was shooting for here was having a Bladerunner universe with a Sin City-type of spit storylines. As any writer knows, we get so many ideas that it's hard to keep up with all of our works-in-progress. Doing things as serial stories means any time I think of something new, I can find an episode to incorporate it. No waiting. No getting stressed at too many back burner unfinished stories.
"Doing things as serial stories means any time I think of something new, I can find an episode to incorporate it.
You have decided to create a set of serial novellas which all take place in the world of Strange Tales from the City of Dust instead of writing novel-length books. Was that an intentional choice or did the stories themselves inform that choice? What have been some of the advantages and/or challenges of marketing serial novellas as opposed to more traditional full-length novels?
I've written a ton of normal books of varying lengths. I get so distracted. New ideas, so I abandon works in progress. Not anymore. Every new idea is blended into stories I'm working on. It might be an infection I was studying. It might be an event that takes place. It'll all be within the City of Dust.
"I get so distracted. New ideas, so I abandon works in progress.
As I read through the descriptions for Clockwork Deus, The Darkest Part, and Pinned Butterflies, I could not help but think of my favorite Netflix series: Black Mirror. Do you think that your novellas could play out well on screen? Also, what are your thoughts on Black Mirror as a series in terms of its contributions to the public conversation about modern Sci-Fi?
I love Black Mirror. Been eating it up as soon as it launched and trying to find everything I can that released soon after and attempted to ride the waves it casted behind it. I always write things in a visual format so that it can be easily transferred to screen. I usually have specific actors/actresses in mind when designing characters. I look at the episodes like a comic book purchase. People enjoy comics for a fun, quick read. My episodes are always a buck each and have a 1-2 hour enjoyable read.
Each episode delves into something real-world, while also forcibly taking something currently that I don't care for and making it fixed and adamant. My books won't ever make sexual preference or sexual identity an issue. This isn't to skirt the issue. It's because, as I see it, it's all considered normal in my universe. No one will give you a side-eye if you were born a girl but identify as a guy. No one cares what's between your legs.
"Each episode delves into something real-world, while also forcibly taking something currently
Last, but not least, where can readers track down your books and stay up to date on your latest publications?
Amazon. For the moment, I am exclusively Kindle Unlimited.
Strange Tales From The City Of Dust
Episode 4: Neon Pentagrams is being worked on now!
Find more from Vaz on his website!
Know that this article was inspired by recent and very real events. A few weeks ago I received an edited manuscript from a very patient editor, almost three-hundred pages absolutely covered in red-slashed edits. Flipping through it was like fast-forwarding through a B-grade slasher film. A few days later, I got a review back from a female beta-reader who said that the mother in the story wasn’t landing properly and that a risk I took near the end, a scene that was meant to be the narrative climax of the second book, bored her. Double ouch. So let’s get real about what the editing process is like and how to survive it.
"...almost three-hundred pages absolutely covered in red-slashed edits.
Principle 1: Force equals mass times acceleration.
Application to Bar Fights: Big people (i.e. big mass) don’t have to move very fast (i.e. low acceleration) to throw forceful punches. Small people (i.e. small mass) need to strike extra fast (i.e. high acceleration) to hit with the same kind of force.
By the way, this rule also explains why sugar-coated feedback (i.e. low acceleration) is not helpful. It doesn’t matter if you are dealing with a big mass or a small mass; if it’s moving really slowly it isn’t going to hit with noticeable any force.
"...get strangers or friends-of-friends (i.e. small mass) to review it in order to lessen the force when those criticisms hit."
Principle 2: Force can also be viewed as change in momentum over time.
Application to Bar Fights: Bones don’t break because they are moving really fast. Bones don’t break because they stop moving. Bones break because they go from moving really fast to a complete stop really quickly. It’s the difference between being shoved up against a wall and being thrown into it.
Principle 3: Intensity of impact is proportional to an object’s rigidity.
"This principle is also the reason you can go diving into a pool of water but not into a pit of gravel."
Application to the Editing Process: The more nervous you are about others critiquing your work (i.e. rigidity) the harder their criticism is going to hit you. This is unfortunate because that means your own fear of criticism is proportional to how much it is going to hurt when it inevitably comes crashing into you.
So don’t tense up. Pretend you are someone else looking at your work. Even better, treat the work as if it was someone else’s story or poem. The more you can relax into the idea that your story is going to take a few hits, the more efficiently you can spread the impact of that criticism around.
"Pretend you are someone else looking at your work.
"My favorite magical creature is Al mi’raj from Arabic poetry. It is also known as the Wolpertinger in German mythology, the Jackalope in American myth and the Lepus Cornutus from medieval and early Renaissance times."
I like stories when seemingly weak or underdog characters win in unexpected ways. I’m not particularly religious, but even as a kid I liked the David and Goliath story. Speaking of Goliath- the mythology there is of the Nephilim- the giants who were apparently offspring of demons and humans. That’s interesting. It was when I was a little kid and to me, it probably always will be. I’m a lover of myths that attempt to explain life to believers. There’s a creature from the Ewe tribe of Togo and Ghana called the Adze. The Adze are shape shifting vampires and evolved as a way to warn against the deadly effects of mosquitos and malaria in the region.
"If I had to be best friends with a villian, I would choose the Fratelli family from Goonies."
If I had to be best friends with a villian, I would choose the Fratelli family from Goonies. They were such a bumbling group of silly meanies. I write Middle Grade and Picture Books, so it follows that I would like this group of greedy criminals from a smash hit kids movie. I especially loved Sloth Fratelli but he was a good guy, wasn’t he?
I drink an unnatural amount of coffee while I write. I recently upgraded to a Keurig after a decade of using the same drip coffee maker. Now, I can have a hot cup - fresh every time I need a bathroom break. It’s kinda funny- I was gifted a box of mixed flavor coffee from my wonderful husband and now I rotate through cinnamon, vermont maple, hazelnut, southern pecan and blueberry vanilla and I love it.
"I drink an unnatural amount of coffee while I write."
I often offer to read rough manuscripts for fantasy fiction and one piece of feedback I often give (and sometimes get!) is that the narrative doesn’t feel ‘real’. How do you manage to connect with your characters and express their thoughts and emotions to readers in an authentic way?
Well, thank you for this question because it implies that I know how to make a character come to life and feel ‘real,’ jumping off the page. I am not sure I always do this. There are times that I’ve reread my work and felt the feelings that the characters are reported to be feeling. I’ve cultivated those moments by writing about something that I have a personal, visceral connection to. Feelings are triggered by sensory experiences and if you can tap into the sensory experiences of your reader and make them feel the feelings that the characters are feeling from the lens of their own visceral life experiences...it becomes real for them. They feel like they “know,” the character. Using the five senses can get you where you need to be quickly. Also using observations about human nature and human behavior can create a connection and give insights into how a character might be feeling. The reader might find themselves thinking “I do that too.”
Many authors branch out from writing to provide other services related to the process of making books as editors, graphic designers, and online forum hosts; I call these ‘writing adjacent’ skills. In addition to your writing, you also design incredible author logos to help writers present their brand effectively. What advice do you have for writers who are thinking of exploring the option of offering services using their ‘writing adjacent’ skills?
I think that writing adjacent services help you to build an author platform. If you are launching a writing career out of obscurity - offering a service can help others get to know who you are and where you sit within the writing community. You can cultivate friendships, readership and writing adjacent customers in this way. When it comes time to enter into the querying trenches, having a following of some kind is important. How important? The blog subscribers, twitter followers or insta numbers as a platform are a mystery to most of us, but a general, strong effort to get your name out there is valuable and it shows. It shows you have staying power and that you are willing to work for your place in the industry.
There is an origin story for the bunny in The First Easter Rabbit narrated by Burl Ives from 1976 but I wanted to give my story a classic feel and tie it to another famous rabbit story. I find retellings satisfying because the reader gets to re enter a world they’ve loved before and learn a little bit more about the beloved characters. They get to relive the joy. My version of The Velveteen Rabbit, The Girl Behind the Magic sticks to Margery Williams’ original and has enough of her story for modern children to receive the wisdom that Williams intended about ‘realness,’ coming from the pure source of love. However adding a few more layers of contrast helps this story come to life in a fresh new way. Also there is a little girl in this story and I think adding little girls to stories that once had boys as the only protagonist is a fresh take too.
"However adding a few more layers of contrast helps this story come to life in a fresh new way. Also there is a little girl in this story and I think adding little girls to stories that once had boys as the only protagonist is a fresh take too. "
You are also a writer of short stories and in your lyrical piece The Hope Goblin, a young girl named Isabelle learns to confront a wicked, bullying goblin. The themes of building one’s own self-confidence and self-image are apparent throughout the rollicking tale. On that topic, how do you feel about instructive literature vs. escape fiction? Where is the line for you as a writer between stories that teach and stories that entertain?
I love escapism as a reader.
As a writer, I must be true to my roots, and instructive literature comes out in me in earnest. I was an English teacher overseas in the Peace Corps, Uzbekistan and then also independently in China. I taught 8th grade writing in Texas as well as ESL to adults and kids. If teaching is breaking something down to its simplest components to be able to build- students in tow, a thing to its theoretical completion- this is how I approach most things in life. I am a parent and I utilize those skills. I love to cook and paint abstract pieces and I do graphic design. I use the skill of looking at the building blocks and ingredients to get to a desired result in those areas too. I think this is why I like writing for kids. Simplifying may seem just that...simple...but it’s a lifetime thus far of developing the skill of breaking things down in order to teach it... I think I bring this skill to the table as a writer too.
"Simplifying may seem just that...simple...but it’s a lifetime thus far of developing the
You have an impressive compendium of mythological creatures on your website, including the little known fairy pig from the Isle of Man known as the Arkan Sonney. What draws you to these creatures and in what ways have other writers responded to your work on that collection?
"We all have similar fears and insecurities too and you find them personified in many of the creatures of myth."
Authors from other countries have contacted me and asked when I am going to do an article on a creature from their culture. I am slowly working through an alphabetical list and so many have said they will be patient until I get to theirs! Others have reached out and thanked me for expanding past what they can find on Wikipedia. I try to cross reference and give examples from several sites so that I am not just replicating what is already easily accessible on the internet. What also seems to be helpful is talking about where the mythological creature has shown up in American pop culture. I find that advertising and product naming ventures pull from International myth and folklore a lot.
"I try to cross reference and give examples from several sites so that I am
What can you tell us about your most recent project? Do you have a few smaller stories on the go or are you working on something big?
I am currently seeking representation for a #STEM, PB series and am very excited about the process. I have a MG Contemporary Adventure based on Aztec Mythology that I am trying to find a home for as well and am also continually working on short stories and creature articles for my blog.
Last, but not least, where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
Find A.R. Jung's adaption of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit on Amazon: The Girl Behind the Magic.
I set up a certain time frame, in which I’d like to be done writing. After creating a detailed outline I can break it down easier. It helps me figure out how much I need to write each week to reach my goal!
"For a writing retreat, I’d love to go to The Black Forest."
I often hear writers complain that they don’t want to waste their time on social media. Personally, I have sparked many meaningful connections within the writing community online and have received much in the way of encouragement from this network of fellow writers. As you have found success in attracting a large audience online, what justification would you present to writers who are skeptical about the usefulness of social media?
I think anyone that has the opportunity to converse with, or learn from, other writers and authors, as well as spread the word about their work, should take that chance. You never know when that big break will come!
Before I wrote The Gatewatch, most of my writing took the form of song lyrics which I sang and performed with a Celtic folk music group. You have a musical background as a vocalist in the hard rock genre. How do your experiences in music shape your stories and what do you think other writers could learn from musicians?
I’ve been a musician for over 10 years now. People often feel moved by music, whether it’s the lyrics or the sound. I think metaphors are a big reason for that. Novels can have that same effect.
"People often feel moved by music, whether it’s the lyrics or the sound.
My stories are primarily inspired by the Norse Myths and I often find myself going back to source material to pick up small details about minor characters that I missed before. Most memorable for me are some of the characters that never get mentioned in popular culture, unlike the well-known actors like Thor, Odin, and Freya. I think a similar phenomenon happens in representations of Greek Mythology as characters like Zeus, Hermes, and Aphrodite overshadow most others. As your work is inspired in part by Greek Mythology, who do you think of as a figure in the Greek myths that deserves a moment in the spotlight?
I think that all deities deserve the spotlight, honestly. There are those shrouded in mystery, and chaos, and so many of them are highly misunderstood. Oh and Hera! Definitely Hera. Looks around the room, nervously, with a forced smile.
"There are those shrouded in mystery, and chaos, and so many of them are highly misunderstood.
The fantasy realm of Gnariam that you have created is both deep and wide. I sense a lot of anxiety from new fantasy writers about creating the world in which their stories take place. While I think we can both agree that there is no end to the work a writer could do in crafting their world, where do you think a new writer of fantasy should begin in their world-building process?
I absolutely love the world of Gnariam so far. It’s going to continue to grow. I think the best tip I could give is to think of as many things in this world, and write them down. For example: governments, religions, currencies, land masses, creatures, if there is magic or tech, terrains, climate, clothing, technology level, etc. Creating a world that feels tangible is a key to success.
"Creating a world that feels tangible is a key to success."
Where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
Discover the realm of Gnariam through C.S. Ratliff's novel The Lightning Rod on Amazon.
Paint us a quick picture of what a productive day of writing, research, or illustration looks like for you. Do you have a certain schedule that keeps you on track or is your creative output more spontaneous? Is there a specific location you like to work in or do you go from place to place? Do you work in small chunks or do you plow through large sections all at once?
On a productive day, I will have two sessions of creative work: one session first thing in the morning, and the other in the hours before I go to bed. I try to methodically complete tasks one after the other, so this usually means spending both sessions working at the same task, whether that is writing and editing text for a book, carving a wooden plate for a print, or inking a hand-drawn illustration.
"I try to methodically complete tasks one after the other, so this usually means spending both sessions
That said, I do sometimes have spontaneous bouts of work in the middle of the day, if I am struck by big-picture idea for a new project, or for the development of a current project; I’ll then stop whatever I’m doing and try to capture the idea before it’s gone. I rely on this kind of spontaneous inspiration in order to form the vision for my projects, but I rely on habit to bring the projects to completion. That habitual work almost always takes place at home—I like to have all my art materials nearby—and in small daily increments.
I have always had a great deal of respect for storytellers who also possess the skill to illustrate that which they see in their imagination. The first illustrator/writer that comes to my mind is Howard Tayler who co-hosts one of my favorite podcasts, Writing Excuses. How do your illustrations affect your storytelling process? Are they typically created after the written narrative or do your visuals inspire the text?
In an online interview with the Nanovic Institute for European Studies you describe a research trip you took to Europe ahead of your senior project. There you delved into the history of printmaking. Of course, the emergence of the printing press gave rise to a chorus of new political, social, and religious voices. Do you think the internet as a means of digital publication has had a similar impact on society or do you view this medium as distinctly different from the printed word?
Yes, I definitely think there is a similar impact! As you say, there are a host of new voices entering into the public sphere, and the shifts towards social disruption and globalization amplified by the printing press also seem to be happening today with the internet. You can even trace similar reactions from the public to this disruption. Multiple people in early modern Europe interpreted the sudden explosion of printed material as a sign of the imminent apocalypse, and you can read similarly dire interpretations of the internet’s effects today: that it’s the end of democracy, of human intimacy, etc. I personally believe that human culture will adapt to the change and continue to grow, just as it did with the printing press.
"Multiple people in early modern Europe interpreted the sudden explosion of printed material as a sign of the imminent apocalypse, and you can read similarly dire interpretations of the internet’s effects today..."
In one aspect, though, I think the internet is having an effect opposite to that of the printing press, in that it is bringing images to the forefront. In medieval Europe, at least, images seemed to hold a great deal of power as vehicles for complex ideas and cultural values, and the introduction of the printing press seemed to gradually demote images to mere decoration, especially when they were combined with text as illustrations. I think the internet is restoring some prominence to the powerful combination of word and image—whether that is through the social communication of Instagram, video essays on YouTube, or the visual humor of memes.
"I think the internet is restoring some prominence to the powerful combination of word and image—whether that is through the social communication of Instagram, video essays on YouTube, or the visual humor of memes."
The Book of the Enchanter is your riveting retelling of the rise and fall of King Arthur as told through the fictional character Bleise who records the tale at Merlin’s request. Complete with wood-block carved illustrations and printed in a style true to the early days of the printing press, it transports the reader to an age long past while remaining accessible to the modern reader. How did you manage to interweave your academic research and creative expression throughout this project as these two are often seen as quite distinct?
I find Arthurian literature especially inspiring in this regard, because of the way that different texts build on each other and innovate over time. For most of the history of the Arthurian legend, audiences responded to Arthurian literature by creating new Arthurian literature of their own; when I see this conversation playing out in the texts that I study, I naturally want to participate in it myself! I’m glad to hear that the book is accessible, because I think that is my biggest challenge when combining research and expression: I wanted to create a version of the Arthurian legend that could speak to people of my own time, just as the Arthurian authors I study were speaking to their cultural context.
As a writer who is inspired by the Norse Myths I often scratch my head at all the time I spend re-reading these stories from over one thousand years ago. However, I am continually drawn back to them and revel in re-interpreting the vivid characters and dramatic imagery. What is it about Arthurian legend that drove you to undertake such an immersive project as The Book of the Enchanter?
Maybe not all of us participate in a story as dramatic as that of Lancelot, but I think most people have experienced relationships with that same tangle of love and conflict. I appreciate Arthurian legends both for the veracity of the emotions that they portray, and the larger-than-life backdrop against which these emotions play out, which to me speaks to the intensity of emotional experience.
Your illustrations in The Book of the Enchanter are done in the style of historical prints from the dawn of the age of print. From an artist’s perspective, what is the value in imitating forms such as wood-block carving in modern work? Is it simply an artistic exercise or is there something to learn from the themes and styles of cultures from the past?
For example, studying highly structured medieval books like the Paupers’ Bible inspired me to incorporate a high degree of symmetry into my illustrations, even though I was also using more contemporary techniques, like the progressive visual narratives found in picture books. I believe that consciously responding to the art of the past in a new form allows me to create something special, a work that is more unique than what I would make if I never learned from artists outside my own period.
Where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
Recent updates can be found on my Instagram and more information about me and my work can be found on my website. Thank you for the great conversation!
Read more about Joan Becker's thesis project, The Book of Enchantments, on the University of Notre Dame website!
In the past few years you have published several books, been an active contributor in academic circles, and engaged a large audience through social media. Do you set a strict schedule to maintain this level of productivity or do you find other ways to sustain your work?
I have a bullet journal. It is not very decorative, but it is great for making checklists, and I like checking things off (yeah, I’m an overachiever). I read a certain amount of stories each day with my breakfast, and most of my blogging and social media posts are scheduled for specific days. It also helps that I do a lot of the storytelling research purely for fun. Sometimes I just feel like looking up folktales about a topic, or from a place, and I enjoy going down the research rabbit hole. It’s one of the things I do for fun.
"I have a bullet journal. It is not very decorative, but it is great for making checklists, and I like checking things off..."
Your work on folktales from around the world spans both continents and centuries. Is this work driven primarily by personal passion or do you hope that your translations become contributions to the ever evolving conversation on globalization?
It is mostly personal passion. I love learning about cultures through their stories. I started the “Following folktales around the world” reading challenge a few years ago, and I still have about 40 countries left to read folktale collections from! As for contributions: With my books I hope to bring Hungarian folktales to English-speaking audiences and storytellers, because they are not very well represented on the English language folktale market. On the flip side, I translate a lot of tales into Hungarian so that Hungarian audiences can have access to them as well.
"With my books I hope to bring Hungarian folktales to English-speaking audiences and storytellers,
One of your first books was Tales of Superhuman Powers: 55 Traditional Stories from Around the World. Today more than ever, North Americans are flocking to the theater to watch movies about superheroes and traditional story-telling media, such as comic books and graphic novels, are becoming popular again. Given your work in this field, what do you think draws people to stories about superheroes? Is it human nature? Is it a part of our mythos or culture? Is there perhaps something psychological at work?
"My personal favorite thing about these “superhero” tales is teamwork.
Earlier this year you released a book titled Forum-Based Role Playing Games as Digital Storytelling in which you describe an emergent form of digital storytelling facilitated through online platforms. Through this experience you discovered “a subculture of unbound creativity” as people wrote novel length descriptions of fictional characters and experience that they lived through these digital worlds. As a professional story-teller yourself, what drew you to engage with and study these emerging communities?
And the stories that come out of it stay online, and you can go back and read them for fun, or out of nostalgia. There are sites where I have been active for 8-10 years, and the stories still keep surprising and entertaining me. I love creating them in cooperation with others, rather than just writing things alone.
In your 2018 publication Dancing on Blades: Rare and Exquisite Folktales from the Carpathian Mountains, you translate the tales of Anna Pályuk, a Rusyn woman who married into a Hungarian family. I find myself challenged by the task of ‘crossing cultures’ as I work with Icelandic source material from a different culture and time. How did you preserve the essence of Anna Pályuk’s stories while translating them for a modern reader? Were there any guidelines or strategies that helped to guide your process?
Joseph Campbell believed that common connections existed between stories from many parts of the world and summarized some of the key aspects of those similarities in what he called the Heroic Journey. Do folktales from around the world share much in your experience or have you found them to be highly distinctive to the culture they were first told in?
I have a bone to pick with the Hero’s Journey. For one, it only fits a sub-category of folktales, usually known as wonder tales or fairy tales. The more one digs into different kinds of traditional stories, the less the theory holds up. Plus, as a storyteller, I tend to focus on how the story is embellished, rather than the basic plot. A lot of tales can be boiled down to “someone gets into trouble, then gets out of it”, but let’s be honest, that is not what makes one tale more compelling than another. There are tale types that exist all around the world, but I only ever really liked one or two variant of them and the rest just didn’t click, because of small details.
"The more one digs into different kinds of traditional stories, the less the theory holds up.
Where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
I regularly blog through my website and I have a professional Facebook page. You can also follow me on Twitter.
You are officially studying Egyptology at UBC but we bumped into each other during a fantasy reading event at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Of course, I do not find this surprising as most fantasy is inspired in part or in whole by history and mythology. As someone who studies these subjects formally, how does your academic background influence your experience of reading fantasy novels?
Well, I do read novels that are set in an Egyptian context now, as I can understand the obscure the facts, even though they are very much exaggerating the culture. Authors like Wilbur Smith, and Elizabeth Peters (Elizabeth is actually an Egyptologist). But when it comes to classical fantasy books, I don’t think it has really changed anything. Other than not having a lot of time to read novels outside of studying. So I would say that I tend to read more YA or Adult fantasy that isn’t a huge epic, just because I don’t have the time or brain power to “study” another huge story. Authors like George, R.R. Martin, or Steven Erickson are way too “intense”. Authors like Jim Butcher, Brandson Sanderson, Dan Brown, etc…are ones I tend currently to gravitate towards. I love fast paced adventure. Of course there is Tolkien! He is my ultimate favourite!
Well, I do read novels that are set in an Egyptian context now, as I can understand
Your studies in Egyptology and ancient cultures have taken you to many incredible destinations including Turin, Italy and Cypress in the Eastern Mediterranean. What is the next travel destination on your research list and what do you hope to study there?
"I went to the Chicago museum which is attached to their Art Institute, and it was amazing. But I didn’t know what I was seeing, till after I started studying art history and then it made those pieces understandable in a whole new context."
In your interview on The Tipsy Archives (a history podcast featuring just the right amount of wine) you mention that you have always been inexplicably drawn to Egyptian history and myth. I myself am drawn to the body of stories that make up the Norse myths and also have a hard time explaining what it is about them that I find so intriguing. Where do you think the power of myth is rooted and what about these stories makes them relevant today?
Ooh, that is a tough question, as we talked about briefly in person and via email, I too am also drawn to Norse myth, I have just academically studied Egyptian myth more. I think the power of myth lies in its ability to captivate a reader/listener because it is relatable. In myth, a reader can find hidden cultural gems of information that would otherwise have not been discovered. There is only so much that archeological evidence can tell us, albeit quite extensive, but nevertheless myth and story hold a culture’s “essence” or values. It is important I feel, for us to share and remember these stories cause then these cultures that do not exist in the same fashion as they used too come back to life and are remembered.
There is only so much that archeological evidence can tell us, albeit quite extensive,
In your essay The Portable Shrine of Anubis, you mention how the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb gave archeologists unparalleled access to information about Egyptian death customs which other fields of archeological study surely view with envy. As we come from a modern North American culture that does not like to dwell on death (but rather obsesses over a glorified version of youth), what strikes you as profound in ancient Egyptian beliefs about death?
"Most seem to think that they are a culture that is obsessed with death, and that they worship it (hence all the pop culture-egyptianizing) but they were in fact quite scared of death, and as such had all of their rituals around death so that they could keep on living in the next area they called The Field of Reeds."
Same like the grave goods, as you needed all of those items with you so that you could continue on. For the Egyptians, magic and death were literal. For example, if you drew a person missing an arm, then that person would have no arm in the next life. So you needed to make sure that once something was drawn, written, placed, that made it so. Death and life were interconnected to them.
In your research paper Soundscaping in the Ancient World: Weaving through the Writings of Time you discuss the importance of sound, as well as silence, in Egyptian language and culture. As my field of study involves the language Old Norse, sound becomes paramount because it was an oral culture with no official written language. However, today so much communication happens visually instead of audibly. What do you think we lose when we move away from auditory language towards text-based communication?
"I think we lose the emotions. We lose empathy. We lose our ability to become personal with people."
The ideological fanatics Nazi Germany in World War II seemed drawn to myths and sought to exploit them for their cultural power. Beyond the Germanic and Norse myths, Nazi archeologists tried, in a bizzare blending of fact and fiction, to prove that the Egyptian pharaohs were ancient Aryans. These bewildering notions still feature heavily in popular conspiracy theories. What do you think the role and responsibility of researchers and historians is in addressing such wildly inaccurate and potentially destructive ideas?
Researchers, historians and archaeologists need to publish their work!!! This is a real problem! There are many people out there who are doing amazing studies but that information never gets told to the public, and therefore stupid theories arise and you get Egyptomania and the misinformed meanings of symbols, be they Egyptian or Nordic.
"Researchers, historians and archaeologists need to publish their work!!! This is a real problem!"
As our role is to study the past, we need to do that in a professional, respectful way and to realize that it doesn’t matter where people come from or what they believe in, we are all here on this planet and we are here to keep our heritage alive. It is about cultural heritage. Educating and involving the locals about their own culture so that they can learn about what was lost to them as well as to us.
"It is about cultural heritage. Educating and involving the locals about their own culture
Where can Egyptology fans find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest research?
Ha! I will be uploading some of my essays, like the ones that you mentioned here, on my academia.edu page (once school is finished).
Find more of Larissa's work at academia.edu!
"I usually reach for the 1554 beer from New Belgium Brewery and drink Guinness on more special occasions."
One of the hardest things for any writer is to move forward with a story once it no longer feels ‘fun’, i.e., once the story is no longer flowing easily from your mind onto the page. What advice do you have for writers who feel like they are stuck in their narrative and are struggling to move forward?
I think that’s an issue that all writers struggle with at one time or another. We all want to write when we feel inspired, but bouts of inspiration can be few and far between. I follow some advice from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. Anne emphasises the importance of routine and of reaching a minimum word count no matter what. I’ve found that keeping a daily writing routine trains my creative muscles to work when I need them. I also aim to write eight hundred words a day, even if every sentence is a struggle. Once I get those eight hundred words down, I’ve usually broken through the wall and entered a good writing flow. If not, I can stop there and try again tomorrow. Repeat ad infinitum, punctuated with long walks and reading.
"I follow some advice from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird.
I am always interested to learn about what else writers do for work as I find this has a significant influence on their writing. How has your work as a wildlife biologist informed your narrative and influenced the fantastic world you have created?
My training in biology makes it a point of professional pride to be accurate and precise in my descriptions of nature. No one else might notice if I confuse the behavior of hares with rabbits, but those are details that I care about. I spend an inordinate amount of time researching the life cycles of every flower, tree, and critter that I include in my book because I want my natural descriptions to be as realistic as possible.
"No one else might notice if I confuse the behavior of hares with rabbits, but those are details that I care about."
On the less technical side of things, my love of nature causes the natural world to loom large in my stories. Nature can be a setting, but it also influences moods, themes, and characters. I particularly love exploring how characters relate to nature because I think that is such an essential part of the human experience.
You and I are both avid fans of poetry in fantasy. I have enjoyed some of the poems you have posted on Twitter as well as those featured on your website, particularly The Road Goes Ever On. In the world of Kellen the Fey, what special role does poetry play in the context of the adventure?
I’m so glad you asked this question because it’s something I love to talk about. For Kellan, poetry begins as a gateway to an elder time full of daring heroes and magic. All the old stories were written in verse, and so that’s how he connects to them. When Kellan starts creating his own poems, it quickly becomes a driving force in his own legend. He learns that poetry is somehow connected to a very deep and powerful magic, but one that comes at a significant price. As Kellan matures into the legend himself, poetry becomes a medium through which he reflects on his journey. I think as the series progresses it will be really cool to see how the role of poetry, and Kellan’s relationship with it, changes from beginning to end.
"For Kellan, poetry begins as a gateway to an elder time full of daring heroes and magic....
As your site hints, there is a sequel to The Wind from Faerie which is tentatively titled The Many Antlered Crown. I am intrigued by the fact that we are both currently working on the second book in our respective series. I have personally found writing the sequel to be a vastly different experience than writing the first. In what ways has the process of writing The Many Antlered Crown been different for you compared to the first book?
When writing my first book, I was very aware of my word count. I knew that publishers and readers were more likely to take a chance on a shorter book, so I wanted my debut to be an approachable length. With this sequel, those concerns are completely out of the window. I’ve got a lot of room to explore the world, the characters, and some really exciting themes. The end result is going to be a book that is significantly longer than The Wind from Faerie, but will be better for it.
"With this sequel, those concerns are completely out of the window.
I also originally conceived Kellan’s story as one arc, but that has necessarily been divided into three books. The Wind from Faerie was just the opening act, an introduction to everything. With The Many Antlered Crown, I feel like I’m finally biting into the meat of Kellan’s story and it’s immensely satisfying.
I think it is fair to say that we both believe in the power of words. As you write, do you feel that there is something you want your reader to feel or do you write simply to tell a good story? Is there a specific message behind Kellen’s adventures or are they purely a narrative escape from our day-to-day reality?
Where can readers find you online and what can they expect to look forward to reading in 2020?
I have a website where readers can check out my weekly blog, see what I’m working on, and find links to my Twitter and Instagram pages. I hope to release The Many Antlered Crown in December of 2020, and the audiobook for The Wind from Faerie should become available early next year.
In light of these depictions, you may be surprised to learn the historical source material for dwarves in fantasy, the Norse myths, portray them as unequivocally evil. Though not even the Norse gods enjoy the benefit of the doubt with Odin himself being nicknamed Bolverk (Evil-Doer), dwarves were viewed as particularly vile. At one time they had supposedly been maggots wriggling in the dirt which were given the wits of men; with such repulsive origins they might be viewed as a symbol of the greed, lust, and violence that marked most of the Viking Age. (And if you think that is an ignoble birth then consider the fact that Ymir spawned giants out of congealed sweat in his armpits...)
"At one time they had supposedly been maggots wriggling in the dirt which were given the wits of men..."
"The dwarven brothers tied him to the chair and cut his throat so they could catch his blood in a vat.
"Mighty Fenrir is brought low when the gods call on the dwarves to craft the strongest chain of all;
There she comes to the dank cave of four dwarven smiths who are admiring their latest creation,
In my own writing I have worked to honor the original conception of the dwarves as presented in the Norse Myths while taking care to remain sensitive to the historical contexts in which the myths have been abused. Particularly heinous are the propaganda posters used to instill hatred toward people of Jewish descent during World War II; an honest evaluation of these political weapons will admit some clear lines being suggested between people of Jewish descent and the dwarves from Norse Mythology. Further, some adaptations of Wanger’s ring cycle clearly present Norse dwarves as pseudo-Jewish type characters which is yet another example of the toxic racism that led to one of the darkest chapters of human history.
Instead of abandoning the myths to those who would weaponize them for ill purposes,
Were they metaphors for human lust and greed? Were they archvillians to flesh out a world full of heroic gods?
For more on the history of the Norse Myths and their modern interpretations, Joshua recommends
From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths by Dr Heather O'Donoghue.
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