Of Gods and Kings and the World of Fantasy

I reviewed James West's The God King last week (see review of the God King by James West), and today I'm privileged to have him here on my blog answering some interview questions. I really enjoyed this interview and learned a lot about what goes into writing and creating fantasy. I'm sure you'll enjoy the interview too, and don't forget to leave comments and ask your own questions at the end.

Thank you for visiting my blog James. Let's talk epic fantasy...

Which fantasies have you most enjoyed reading, as a child and as an adult? Do you think they influenced you in writing the God King?

First let me say how much I appreciate you setting up this interview and the opportunity it provides me to talk about what I consider my real work! Thank you!

Now to the nitty-gritty. The first book I ever read that even smacked of the fantastical was the Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub. The first traditional fantasy I ever read was The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan. Although I have since read quite a few fantasy-type novels, these two rank high on my list of favorites. To make it an even three, I will add George R.R. Martin’s, A Game of Thrones. As far as influence goes, Stephen King will always hold a special place in my heart. For me, he is one of those few authors who can write about something that means absolutely nothing to me, yet still draw me into the story, compel me to keep reading, and leave me feeling satisfied. That is the kind of writer I aspire to become.

I have the same aspirations, and I'd say the God King did indeed compel me to keep reading. Is fantasy your favorite genre to read? To write?

I love writing fantasy. It has so much potential, and is so full of what if ideas, that I never get tired of it. As far as reading, there is so much to read across so many genres that I only get around to one or two fantasy titles in a given year.  

You invent some fascinating civilizations in your novel. Are they modeled on any particular people or places? Where would you say they were most like?

As I mentioned, the cool thing about fantasy is that it’s a genre that allows authors and readers the unfettered exploration of the idea of what if. When I began setting up the world in which The God King would take place, I was looking at ancient cultures of the Middle East, the Greeks and Romans, and the Germanic tribes. I wondered what would happen if I smashed all those separate epochs and peoples together. In short, I suppose my civilizations are modeled after real peoples and eras. But as a fantasy writer, I let my imagination mix together and render down all the information I had absorbed in research, and what came out were cultures that are familiar in some respects, but wholly fictional in others. That said, there is no question that I set the story of The God King in a realm flavored by the ancient Middle East.       

When you create your characters’ names, do you base them on a real-world language? Do you hear the sound of the name before you work out how to write them? Does it worry you that readers might not pronounce the names “right?”

When I first started writing fantasy—2002-2003—I knew I wanted to tell stories that took a step away from European settings, and knew I would need to come up with different/appropriate sounding names and places. With that in mind, I discovered a great and invaluable resource in online name generators. I made a list of literally thousands of names, all based on real world languages. Taking it a step further, when I look back over that list, I pick a name that sounds interesting, then add or subtract a few letters, and maybe toss in some apostrophes and hyphens for visual effect. Generally I like to make a name sound just like it looks. As far as worrying over a reader mispronouncing those names, it never crosses my mind. I know for myself that I have read a lot of truly outlandish names in various books, and I find that my brain automatically retranslates the tongue-twister/brain-teaser name into something that works for my reading pleasure.

There are some visually spectacular scenes throughout this book. If it was being made into a movie, which scenes would you want to be most sure were replayed correctly?

That is a tough one, because I would want all of them done right :) Some of my favorite scenes follow: when Varis first encounters Peropis in the Thousand Hells; when Ellonlef sees and experiences the aftermath of the release of the powers of creation; the entire scene when Kian, Azuri, and Hazad encounter Lord Marshal Bresado under the Black Keep; when Varis discovers that his army is not what he thought they were, and the steps he takes to rectify that situation…. I could go on, but I do not want to bore everyone, or give too much away!  

Reading your answer brings those scenes back to mind for me. I think I'd like this movie. Meanwhile, are the marshes based on somewhere you’ve been? What about the cities?

My family moved around a lot when I was growing up, so I spent time in Northern California and all over Oregon. I lived in Southeast Alaska for a time, as well as North and South Carolina, and Florida. When in the Army I was stationed in Hawaii—I was in the infantry, so I spent a lot more time sweating in the jungle than on the beach—which also took me to Australia and Haiti. For a year after the Army, my wife and I decided to earn some extra college money by driving eighteen-wheelers. Logging close to a 1,000 miles a day as a team, we literally drove over nearly every mile of interstate America has to offer. After college we spent a year in New Mexico, before finally coming back to Montana. With all that in mind, I would say the closest thing to a swamp/marsh experience for me was a month spent in Fort Polk Louisiana, and the countless times I drove back and forth across the deep south. As far as cities, I would say they come from research and imagination.     

You use the number three a lot—three gods, three moons, three men marching together… and, of course, people often talk of stories having three parts—beginning, middle and end. Did you use the number three as a deliberate symbol or do you think there’s something in us that naturally gravitates towards that number?

Until I read that question, I had not considered that the number three showed up so many times. If there is any symbolism there, it was not intentional. I have to admit, I am curious as to where and how I will use that number in the future. Of course, for me that uncertainty, constantly wondering what if, is one of the most alluring things about writing fiction. I cannot tell you how many times I intended the story to go one way, only to have it take off on its own, leaving me to hang on for the ride. That is where things can get tricky, because I want to see where it will go, but I also know I have to stay on task.  

I really enjoyed the dialog between Kian, Azuri and Hazad. Did you model them on real people?

The best short answer I can give is to say yes and no. The more accurate answer is that when I am writing it all becomes real to me—people, places, and situation—so much so that when I am really steaming along, what I see outside my window becomes the fake world. I have gotten used to that, but when I first began writing I found it rather unnerving to head out to the grocery store after a few hours of writing. I would get the strong impression that the people picking over the fruit and vegetables were not people at all, but some strange, alien race … of course, writers are not the only people who believe aliens are everywhere :)

The long and short of it is this: When I am writing, I immerse myself in the story to the point that I begin to believe the story and its people exist in a real time and place. They live out their lives on a world that is a shadow of our own, spinning around a distant star in some fantastic parallel universe.    

The God King flows very naturally from one location to the next. Did you plot the whole story before writing it or did it shape itself that way?

I usually do a rough outline, with bullet points serving as guideposts. But as I touched on earlier, the story always ends up taking over. Experience has taught me to keep a light but steady hand on the reins. If I give the story its head it will gallop off, and those separate bullet points have the potential of turning an otherwise tight story into a rambling series of events that fail to drive the plot. If I am too firm, my writing loses vitality, color, becomes formulaic. The cool thing is that if I end up somewhere really interesting, I can cut it from the current project, then explore it in depth in another. In that, I do a lot of recycling :)   

Do you see any analogies between human creativity and the creative forces wielded by Varis and Kian?

I am not sure I can reasonably answer that, but I’ll give it a shot. Ultimately I intended to introduce a power into their world that, left to itself, is neither good nor evil. As the series continues, the underlying conflict is: What will humankind do with that much unbridled power? Can good prevail over the evil that will surely come? Or will that godlike power, coupled with the imagination and aspirations of the heart, corrupt and ultimately destroy humanity?     

Now I really want to read more. What a great theme for the series. So, my final question: Is there something I’ve forgotten to ask that you’d really like to answer?

I’d love to share a bit of my new work with you.

Here is a short blurb about my upcoming book! If anyone wants to read the first chapter for free, they can visit my blog at http://jamesawest.blogspot.com/2012/02/crown-of-setting-sun.html

The Crown of the Setting Sun, the second novel in The Heirs of the Fallen series, is a story set almost two hundred years after the Upheaval, the cataclysm that unfolded during The God King. An age of darkness cloaks the world and the Faceless One risen to power, using legions of Alon’mahk’lar, the Sons of the Fallen, to ensure absolute dominion over what little remains of humankind.

Among humans, the people of Izutar are hunted and chained, and seem to have no other purpose than enslavement. All that begins to change when an old man of mysterious origins sacrifices his life to allow his grandson, Leitos, to escape the mines, the only home he has ever known. Freedom from a life of subjugation, however, is not the blessing it first seems.

Weak and alone in a world beset by walking nightmares, in a world where he can trust no one, Leitos must abandon his ingrained, timid nature and grow strong and cruel in order to survive. Charged by his grandfather to seek a fabled order of warriors, Leitos fears the existence of the Brothers of the Shadow Blade is but a dying man’s blind hope … a hope frail as morning mist caught beneath the crushing heat of the desert sun.      

 Thank you James. I shall look forward to reading Crown of the Setting Sun. And I've really enjoyed having you visit my blog.


Sheila Deeth said…
Thank you for visiting my blog. I really enjoyed doing this interview with you.

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