Today I am interviewing Darrell Drake. He is the author of several fantasy books. His latest book The Star Reckoner’s Lot is going to be published on October.
When did you decide to become a writer?
I don’t think I can put a finger on a certain moment in my life and say with certainty that this is when I decided. I’ve always had a storm-livened sea of stories in my head, and an appreciation for fantastical settings. These stories eventually found their way out, and before I knew it I’d was in the thick of it!
Which writers inspire you? What books have most influenced your life?
I’ll preface this by saying that I believe most everything an author reads has some measure of influence on his writing. For the sake of the question, I think that the three authors with the most influences were Sir Terry Pratchett, Andrzej Sapkowski, and Vladimir Nabokov. Pratchett’s penchant for forming a serious tale out of near-constant levity left its mark. I even send a nod his way with Waray’s “. . .” responses instead of merely indicating silence. Those ellipses are a powerful tool.
Sapkowski brings mythology to life in the gritty yet fantastical world of The Witcher so wonderfully. He strikes a brilliant balance between the mundane, mud-smeared setting with the monsters that lurk in the shadows. I love it, and cannot deny his influence. Nabokov has a peculiar way of describing things as if he’s taking them apart and putting them together in front of you. I’ve long admired his ability to write as he does. While it doesn’t particularly suit the fantasy genre, it does creep into my writing here and there—sparingly.
What genre are your books? What draws you to this genre?
My first three books were sword and sorcery. My latest is historical fantasy, but still rests comfortable on the sword and sorcery side of fantasy. While I will not turn down a good story, and seek to tell good stories in my works, I value characters more than the story. And the more intimate perspective offered by sword and sorcery facilitates that. There may still be world-changing events going on in the background—even driving the characters forward at times—but it is the characters who come first. The sub-genre is more personal. As far as historical fantasy is concerned, I’ve always been interested in history, and I think I can say the same for many a fantasy fan. The two have much in common: you can often find one in the other. So they work together brilliantly.
If you were to change your genre, which one would you choose?
Maybe history. I appreciate the value of fantasy, the much-needed escape it provides its readers. But it is important to chronicle our past. It offers perspective; it reinforces cultures; it tells a story. Hopefully, we can learn to stop repeating it someday. If that’s ever going to happen, we have to be aware of it to begin with.
How many books have you published so far?
Four! Although the fourth is a month away. The first three (Within Ruin, Everautumn, and Where Madness Roosts) were tales in The Flameforged Saga, a sword and sorcery series that is currently on haitus, but neatly tied up. The fourth is A Star-Reckoner’s Lot, of course, and I think it’s my best by far.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
My first books took some years of strapping together ideas and a setting. The second and third had the benefit of existing in an established setting. Everautumn took about a year, give or take. Where Madness Roosts was a novella, so it was only a matter of months. A Star-Reckoner’s Lot amounted to about 6 months of writing while adhering to a strict schedule. I’m not sure what the number was exactly, but I had to hit a certain words per week threshold on that one.
Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured?
I don’t have a strict schedule, but I tend to get the most work done from 11AM–3PM and later than 9PM. Those are just when I feel the most creatively active (and I’m not at all a morning person, despite waking up at about the same time for years).
How much research do you do before you write your books?
It’s hard to remember what went into the first three because I’ve spent so much time on A Star-Reckoner’s Lot. I’ll focus on that one considering.
With A Star-Reckoner’s Lot taking place in a historical analog to Sassanian Iran, I put research before everything else. Indeed, not a word of prose was written until I felt comfortable with the setting, and the character-relevant studies (mental health and such). So it was that I set out to study everything relevant that York University had to offer. The vanilla- and acid-rich smells of its sliding shelves became a realm of familiarity—where a turn of a crank could impart so much knowledge. It was here that I did a great deal of my research on ancient Iran, mythology, psychology, ancient warfare, Zoroastrianism, and what have you. Astrology, astronomy, and some other topics were in smaller library tucked away nearby.
When I felt I’d exhausted most of what I could glean from its smoothly sailing shelves, I turned to online sources (most public libraries don’t really suit extensive research, especially not on an unsung empire like Sassanian Iran). Fortunately, the Internet is more than memes and anonymity: it’s also a bastion of knowledge. Sites like Encyclopaedia Iranica (which I was fortunate enough to find some volumes of at York), Sasanika, Academia, and CAIS-SAOS went a long way in supporting my pursuit. It didn’t always go swimmingly, though. Often, research meant trawling deep into sites that weren’t easy to come by, and in contacting the scholars who champion the subjects I was researching.
All in all, it took years before I was comfortable enough to write in the setting.
How are you publishing your latest book, A Star Reckoner’s Lot, and why?
A Star-Reckoner’s Lot was partially funded through the popular crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter. That said, and while I’d like to stress how grateful I am to my backers, the majority of the costs have come out of pocket. I chose to publish independently mainly because I want control over what’s published, and because I don’t agree with leaving the future of my novel to the whim of a literary agent.
I realize all too well the struggle of lifting a self-published novel above the connotation that comes alongside, but I have endeavored to make A Star-Reckoner’s Lot as polished as readers would expect from a traditionally published novel—from beta reading to editing to the cover to the story itself. Not only do I have to impress readers; I have to live up to the standards promised by my Kickstarter.
What is more difficult? Writing, publishing or selling the book?
Selling, by far. Writing is giving freedom to what has been caged; it is liberating. Publishing can be stressful, especially running a Kickstarter, but it still falls short to selling. When it comes to surmounting the negativity associated with self-published novels, spreading work, marketing and promotion—well, it’s all a huge pain in the ass. There are bloggers out there, bloggers like yourself, who support independent authors. I appreciate it, and I’m sure others do, too. And if they don’t, they should.
Who edited your book and how did you select him/her?
I put out a call for editors, and had many editors return the first chapter or so (it’s a short one) to get an idea of their strengths and weaknesses. Eventually, I settled on Alice Leiper. Boy am I glad I did. Her expertise brought something to A Star-Reckoner’s Lot that few if any of the others would have. Her bachelor’s in Ancient History and Archaeology and her master’s in Classical Mediterranean brought something unique to her editing, something relevant to the setting in addition to what’s typically expected of an editor. I’m certain the book is better for it.
Tell us about your protagonists? Was there a real-life inspiration behind them? Or, did you get inspiration from Iranian legends?
Ashtadukht, the heroine of A Star-Reckoner’s Lot, is perhaps the most appealing because of her flaws. She’s constantly struggling with her illness, the weight of her husband’s death (and her headstrong pursuit of the div responsible [a sort of monster]), the enormity of her title as star-reckoner, the contempt with which her peers view her (due to her unpredictable star-reckoning, and leniency toward the divs she’s meant to root out). All the while, she maintains her bearing. She is proud, intelligent, and capable—neither above her faults nor weakened by them. In her adventures, readers will come to find just how heedlessly she follows her course for justice—or what she would call justice.
Waray is one of Ashtadukht’s companions, one who has already endeared readers, and is above all else a liability. A glance at her semi-keeled scales and otherwise viper-like appearance imparts a clear impression of her terrible lineage. She is no normal div, though. A normal div would be a more straightforward problem; Waray is half-div. Her troubled state becomes immediately manifest in unusual idiosyncrasies and an unconventional take on reality, symptoms of her grim personality disorders. What’s more, she harbors a lie so great it entices her own kind to turn on her. Hunted by both sides, running from her past, Waray is in a bad … way when Ashtadukht finds her.
Finally, there’s Tirdad. Between the three, he is the most level-headed. Like any upstanding man of Sassanian Iran, he seeks moderation in all things. He tries to be witty, though he often falls short. But he is clever in his own way. He’s loyal, strong-hearted, and a damn good warrior. As a cousin to Ashtadukht, he would oftentimes witness the bond she shared with her brother. He couldn’t quite place why at the time, but he eventually came to understand that he felt privileged to have been a part of that. When Ashtadukht’s father began to worry about her proximity to the Lazic War, Tirdad stepped in and offered to be her guardian rather than some stranger. He gave up a bright future for Ashtadukht. He is both her foil and someone who has devoted himself to her.
As far as inspiration is concerned, most of their characterization has been inspired by decades of imaginative works. However, I can manage to pick one or two out of the fog for you. Ashtadukht’s role as a star-reckoner was inspired in part by Mushishi, a brilliantly moving series about a man who wanders through Japan of yore and protects people from otherworldly spirits. Waray was inspired in part by Almi and Merill, two characters from my other series, though she is most certainly a character of her own. I can’t really cite any inspiration from Iranian legends for the characters (besides Waray being sired by Eshm, an infamous beast feared by humans and its own kind). Most of the Iranian influence is on the stories and the setting.
Tell us about your cover and how it came about. Who designed your cover?
Ruyi Yuen is the talented artist in charge of the color. And she did a damn stellar job of it, too! I’ve been working with Ruyi off and on for years now. She designed the cover for Everautumn as well as several other commissions. One of which, I have framed—serious framing, too. Custom framing.
I got in touch with Ruyi early on, well before I’d even started writing A Star-Reckoner’s Lot, because I knew I’d like to work with her. It was a long wait for her, that’s for sure! When the time finally came, I gave her a general idea of what I wanted and she did her magic. I tried to avoid being too specific besides some of the more important details like character clothing. After she put together a few lovely design concepts, we finally ended up combining two. Ruyi had concepted a more scenic cover for Everautumn, and I always regretted not choosing that one.
So we went with a scenic view of Iran’s Mt. Damavand with a sunset as its valance, and the stars above. The latter surely has the most obvious relevant to the story. Not only do wild poppies bloom all around the mountain, they also have significance in the story. While Ashtadukht and her companions are certainly on the cover—and you can certainly see the long shadow she casts—they are not the focus. In doing so, Ruyi did a great job of capturing the wandering that comes with their varied tales.
A little cover trivia worth mentioning: Ruyi designed the cover constellations according to a planetarium image of a 6th-century evening. See if you can spot them! http://65.media.tumblr.com/3082b18b5b61316fdabf3d3fc5779e61/tumblr_oc8azhXEQB1relhwno1_1280.jpg http://67.media.tumblr.com/68d3b65b42196e84ff5f7e084d1c1dca/tumblr_oc8azhXEQB1relhwno2_1280.jpg
If you couldn’t be an author, what would your ideal career be?
Sleep. All day. Is there somewhere I can sign up? I might choose toenlist, if I weren’t in a strange situation with citizenship. And perhaps be too old to. Despite the perils and uncomfortable nature of being deployed, it’s something I’m still interested in. I’ve discussed the idea with recruiters several times in the past, and have taken the ASVAB, but it always fell through.
What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?
What advice would you like to give writers who are struggling with their first novels?
Keep writing it. Don’t stop. Don’t set it aside. Focus. Write. Every. Day. The best part about writing toward your goal is that it doesn’t go away. Sure, it may get snipped if it isn’t up to par, but you’re always making progress if you’re always working on the novel. While I’m not one of them, some authors benefit from writing groups. It’s something to consider.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to the readers?
I won’t try to curry favor with you folks by distracting you with something unrelated. A Star-Reckoner’s Lot is polished; its historical setting is veritably untouched by fiction authors; its protagonist is unique and will surprise you. And it’s a damn good read.
Thank you very much for having me, Patrycja. I’m grateful you asked me to drop by after that lovely review of yours.
Thank you so much for your time Darrell!