Thursday, July 17, 2014

Talking Byzantium with I.A. Watson

I.A. Watson's new eBook is releasing today. So we figured now was as good a time as any to talk to the prolific author about his new work (and some of his older stuff too). 

So, your new series for Pro Se’s Single Shot Signatures e-books range is out about now. What’s the pitch for your BYZANTIUM series?

Image an alternative history where Christianity never happened. Where Rome fell because of the rise of sorcerer-kings and ancient wyrms. Where mediaeval Europe is a ruin of scattered fiefdoms separated by ghost-haunted forests and bandit-plagued roads. Where the ancient city of Byzantium is the last refuge of civilisation.

Our first five-volume arc, starting with BYZANTIUM: DEAD MEN’S ROAD, tells the story of a caravan wagon train making its way to the big city across that wilderness desolation. Unfortunately they discover themselves in the middle of a civil war, stalked by raiders and a growing undead army, with terrible enemies behind them and traitors within.

And in the best tradition of “beleaguered traveller” stories, almost everyone on the road has a secret.

What made you want to tell a story like that?

Tommy [Hancock, Pro Se Editor in Chief] pointed out that I’d never really developed signature characters of my own as many writers do. I’ve written half a million words or more of Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, plus plenty of stories using other people’s pulp characters, either classics like Richard Knight and Armless O’Neil or new franchises like Blackthorn or Gideon Cain. I’ve never taken the time to develop an ongoing cast all of my own.

And Tommy, diabolic arch-salesman that he is, then suggested his new Single Shot imprint as being the ideal way to fix that.

I decided to look at a fantasy series because I’ve not published that much in the genre. I wanted the fun of imagining and building a world in an alternate history where some things were the same and some were very different from our own past. Dungeons and Dragons meets Wagon Train. Mystical medieval realpolitik interrupted by zombies. Thieves, warriors, princesses, and pagan priests facing a disaster movie. I wanted a disparate bunch of characters pushed together for an extended period of time so they could rub up to each other and secrets could come out.

Did you manage to get your new characters in there, then?

Our story starts as a swashbuckling interfering wanderer joins up with a long-distance caravan because he senses trouble – and fun. The train’s moving out across uncertain territory carrying an imperial army payroll. There’s a royal courier delivering urgent diplomatic messages. There’s a sleazy slaver dragging a bunch of captives to the Byzantium auction block. There’s a very large, very direct Viking security guard with a very large war-axe, and an eccentric humming trail-scout with a pet war-pig. Most significantly from our adventurer’s point of view,  there’s a dazzlingly beautiful lady mage of the Invisible College travelling alone on some mysterious errand pursued by terrible enemies.

You know how disaster movies establish a whole bunch of people of different kinds who then get pushed together when the crisis happens? That’s what I was going for here. The fun is seeing how they interact and who survives.

The main characters were designed to work at least two different ways. The challenge was to use archetypes of the genre – I could tell you the main cast’s Skyrim statistics and their approximate levels – and then make them proper rounded people suitable for a novel.

Is writing fantasy very different from historical adventure like your ROBIN HOOD trilogy, or from detective fiction like the SHERLOCK HOLMES: CONSULTING DETECTIVE books, or from high space opera SF like BLACKTHORN?

Each form has its own requirements but all have similar needs too. Every story has got to have a hook, compelling characters, an unfolding plot. They must all provide a satisfying reading experience. Of the examples you mention, the mystery stories are the ones that require the most unique approach. I plot those and structure them quite differently to the way I put together the adventure-based material. Sometimes there are diagrams.

I’ve done a bit of each kind of story recently. I’ve turned in my story for CONSULTING DETECTIVE volume 7, plus a different take on Holmes for a forthcoming anthology of Holmes stories without Watson for a different publisher. I’ve completed the most dense, complicated mystery I’ve ever written, “Murder at Barrowbrocks” for a forthcoming anthology of ‘cosy’ detective stories. Writing those is a bit like laying out a jigsaw puzzle. Nothing can be wasted in a fair-play mystery. Even the irrelevant is relevant as a way of obscuring the vital. Every story can be read twice for very different experiences, first time to solve the mystery, the second to see how the author slipped in the clues and to enjoy the characters struggling while we know the awful truth.

I’ve sent off the manuscript for the all-I.A. Watson anthology ROBIN HOOD: FORBIDDEN LEGEND. BLACKTHORN: SPIRES OF MARS is ready to go. Both of those required a sort of free-wheeling action vibe. The key elements were character, interacting with a distinctive environment, against a larger plot. A lot of heroic fiction depends on establishing a compelling narrative and threading the cast through it. There the writing starts with getting all the dominoes lined up, then knocking them down to thrill the reader.

Somewhere between the two extremes is a property like RICHARD KNIGHT: RACE WITH HELL, my forthcoming novella using Donald Keyhoe’s US agent airman detective. The blend there is between solving a mystery and surviving a peril. It’s James Bond with added whodunnit.

With BYZANTIUM, which is structured as stand-alone novellas within an initial five-volume story arc, the writing is most similar to Hood and Blackthorn. Adventure is adventure whether it’s in Sherwood Forest, dystopian future-Mars, or fantasy alternate-Europe. The other challenge was making sure that each book offered a stand-alone story with its own bang, so that folks go away satisfied (and hopefully come back again next time to be satisfied some more).

You intend to return to the Byzantium series, then?

As time allows, I probably will. We’ll see how the initial five novellas do as proof-of-concept. I enjoyed writing them, as evidenced by the fact that I started out expecting to produce a single novella, then proliferated to a trilogy, then ended up with five parts before I could reign myself in. And after all that we still only got the core cast to the city gates! Five volumes called Byzantium, and we’ve not even got inside the walls yet! More work is clearly indicated.

The five parts so far are: BYZANTIUM: DEAD MEN’S ROAD, BYZANTIUM: STONE AND FIRE, BYZANTIUM: REBEL’S RUN, BYZANTIUM: GHOST ARMIES, and BYZANTIUM: SHATTERED BONDS. It’s a bit early to say, but I think that might get followed by BYZANTIUM: FORTUNE’S FOOL.

Anything else on the writing desk?

My self-imposed task this summer is to get lots of finished things properly packaged and sent off to publication. Next up is SIR MUMPHREY WILTON AND THE LOST CITY OF MYSTERY, a World War II adventure in the Saturday-matinee tradition of Indiana Jones. A couple of other novels are in the queue after that when time allows.

Next time I sit down to do a long piece will be a full-length Sherlock Holmes novel that’s been commissioned. I need to get some of the clutter cleared so I can get a clear run at that.

Also due out sometime soon-ish is my first non-fiction book, the essay volume WHERE STORIES DWELL. I’m looking forward to that one, even though it did nearly kill the publisher.

I.A Watson’s publications are listed at http://www.chillwater.org.uk/writing/iawatsonhome.htm along with free stories and additional materials.