First of all, I am a what I would call "world building nerd", your stories have some amazing, very realized worlds, what is your approach to world building and how does it relate to your overall story telling?
My books all start with a major focus on worldbuilding. I do that because so much of the book (the territory, the resources, the magic, the politics) stems from the world itself.
In the case of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, I’d long wanted to scratch the itch to write a desert story. I can attribute this partly to liking the tales of the Arabian Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights), particularly the milieu. In fact, as my last series, The Lays of Anuskaya, progresses, you can see more and more of the Persian-influenced Aramahn coming into the picture, culminating in long stretches of desert scenes in the final book, The Flames of Shadam Khoreh.
So the desert was something I really wanted to explore, and I knew I wanted to steep the history of the city in a nomadic, Bedouin-like culture, but I’d probably (letting my geek flag fly here a bit) give the most credit to the Thieves’ World anthologies for the inspiration for the setting. I loved the city of Sanctuary when I first starting reading the anthologies in high school. I loved that it was the “armpit of the empire,” that it was a meeting point of old and new as the Rankan Empire drove into Ilsigi territory, that there were pantheons of gods vying for power, and in fact commingling even as they fought. Above all, I loved the vastness of Sanctuary and the hidden wonders it contained.
The feel of that is what I wanted to explore with Sharakhai. Sharakhai is in some ways a mere city state. But in effect it controls trade throughout a massive desert bordered by four powerful kingdoms, and because it controls trade, it has amassed incredible wealth and power. It hasn’t done so without making enemies along the way, however. The twelve immortal kings of Sharakhai are hated by many. And the roots of the story are buried deeply in that hatred.
The Song on Shattered Sands series so far has turned into a must read for me, what was the inspiration for writing it?
As mentioned above, I spent a lot of time on worldbuilding before I got too specific about characters. I do this with all my books so that when I get to culture and religion and politics, and eventually character, all the work that went into the world itself can advise me on who the characters are. When I started formulating the main character, Çeda, I already knew about the desert world, the twelve kings, the role that Sharakhai played in local politics as a hub of commerce. I knew to a degree that there were wandering desert tribes and that the people of Sharakhai came from and often identified with those various tribes. It’s in that place—where an older way of life clashes with a newer—that Çeda and her mother, Ahya, really began taking shape.
With those building blocks in place, I started to think more about what Çeda’s past would mean to her as a young woman growing up alone in a big metropolitan city. I thought more about how her mother’s mission in Sharakhai would affect Çeda and those around her. And I slowly started to realize that the heart of the story was about loss of heritage and the desire to regain it. It became a lot about family, in the larger sense of the word, what losing parts of it might mean to a young girl, and how we redefine the very notion of family as we grow older. That grew into a larger question: what does cultural identity mean? In the beginning of the story, Çeda knows very little about her past. She soon begins to learn more. To her growing horror, that knowledge ties into the very history of the kings of Sharakhai. It was a great piece of inspiration, and provided a ton of ideas for where I could take the story.
Since we are a book site, what are you currently reading? what would you recommend to your friends?
I’ve been listening to audio version of The Lord of the Rings as a bit of pleasure reading. I’ve read it many times, but find it fun to listen to books while working in the yard, while in the car, etc. I’m also reading the Harry Potter series to my kids at night. We’re currently on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. And I’m also listening to V. E. Schwab’s A Darkder Shade of Magic, a wonderful book about the four split realities of London—white, grey, red, and black, each of which has particular types of magic and that play upon one another to create a very intriguing plot. It’s been a great read so far.
I am a huge gamer, do you play games? video or physical games? if so, what are you currently enjoying?
I’ve reduced my video game playing time quite a bit, but I do get in some time on the PS4 and Xbox with my son now and again. We played the hell out of Rayman Legends, a really colorful, inventive adventure game. We also loved Marvel Legos (for any Lego aficionados out there, we made it to 100% in the game and still kept playing). I picked up Witcher III and really like it, but it’s so involved, and I only get little chunks of time to play, its taking me forever to get through it. I also like Need for Speed for a bit of racing fun.
I have a gaming gang I get together with every few weeks. We play a ton of board games and some role playing games. You name the game and we’ve probably played it at least once. 7 Wonders is a recent favorite. We also like The Lords of Waterdeep, X-Wing Miniatures, Star Wars Armada, King of Tokyo, and Starfarers of Catan, and the occasional miniatures game like Warmachine or Warhammer 40k.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write and believes they have a story to tell?
Hmm. If I could pick just one thing, it would be to know your strengths and weaknesses. We all have weaknesses. Learn what yours are. Workshop your stories. Critique others. Pay close attention to the common threads in the feedback you're getting. And once you have those weaknesses identified. Work on them. Get advice. And make active attempts to root out those problems, because simply writing is not enough. Writing blindly can reinforce your bad habits.
By the same token, we all have strengths. Learn what yours are. It's common to get all sorts of advice on your stories, some of which makes no sense whatsoever to listen to. In fact, they may be very detrimental if taken to heart and internalized. While you're paying attention to those common threads I mentioned above, also pay attention to what you're doing right. I say this not so you can rest on your laurels, but so you can accentuate those strengths and make them better. You can even use that knowledge to hone in on your weaknesses. If you're great with dialogue, write a story with no dialogue whatsoever. If you're good with action, write an introspective story. And then do the reverse. Write a story that focuses on your strengths, i.e. make those muscles stronger. Hopefully something interesting comes out of these experiments along the way.
finally, is there anything you are currently watching? film? television? bingeworthy things?
I can’t recommend the movie Sing Street enough, especially those who grew up in the 80’s. It’s a great movie from John Carney, the creator/director of the surprise smash hit, Once.
I enjoyed the first season of Westworld. The series is not without its flaws, but I dig the tone it’s going for and some of the questions it raises about what it means to be human.
I also recently caught Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture last year. Not an easy film to watch given the subject matter (it’s the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the child abuse scandal within the local Catholic Archdiocese), but it’s powerful and sports a terrific ensemble cast.
And lastly, to end on a light note, Moana was a great, fun, tap-your-toes-to-the-music kind of movie. My whole family loved it, and I’m willing to be a fiver you will too.