Gary Wassner discusses his latest GemQuest novel. Interview by Violet Kane
With the release of his newest GemQuest novel, Gary Wassner is one book away from the completion of his ground-breaking fantasy series. By combining traditional epic fantasy with an edgy character-driven sensibility, Wassner has captured a dedicated fan base and has proven that talent can shine in the small presses. I wanted to know more about Wassner's background and his creative process.
V: The fourth novel of your GemQuest series was just released. Can you give your fans any clue to what's in store? Do you have plans to write further novels set in the GemQuest world?
GW: What's in store? That's not easy without giving away too much. For those of you who know my books already, you'll probably agree that they're character driven. And when you write a series over a long period of time the characters naturally evolve. I've always tried to write from each character's point of view, not from mine as an author, as someone looking in from the outside, but from within each individual person's perspective. What would he or she do, how would this decision affect this person as opposed to that person, how would this man or woman stand up to the particular conflict that he or she has to deal with. And as in our own lives, we each deal with our demons in different ways. Some of us are more courageous than others, some are more selfish. My characters are suffering and searching. But they're all coming to realize that the answers they seek are not going to be easy to find.
I spent much much more time editing this book than any of the others. I wrote and rewrote the manuscript three or four times, from beginning to end, but not because I was unhappy or dissatisfied with the story. I hardly changed the plot lines from the first draft. What I did was remove anything that was superfluous, any descriptors, dialogue, interactions, that weren't essential to the movement of the story and the development of the ideas that drive the story. I cut nearly 250 pages from the first draft. I wanted each chapter to be exciting from beginning to end, and I wanted to maintain the element of surprise on which the book ends. I also wanted each chapter to belong to a character so I could express that individual's hopes and fears more poignantly.
So you ask me what's in store? More of the same for those who love my world and relate to the perils inherent in it, less of the slow paced, bardic style that characterized my previous three GemQuest books. This book is darker, more dangerous, perhaps more frustrating for those who want a simple resolution and for those who want all the good guys to win. The language is more terse, less flowery, reflecting more accurately the developing and deteriorating state of the world in which the story takes place. The world of GemQuest is spinning faster, the issues that threaten it are coming to a head, though the resolution is no longer as clear as it may have seemed originally.
As certain things coalesce and as certain powers begin to manifest themselves, the paths of those who shaped the earlier books are altered. Events force decisions. Who is in control is no longer quite so clear.
V: Do you have any projects in the works that are unrelated to GemQuest? Do you hope to stick with fantasy in the future or try branching out into other genres?
GW: At this moment, I'm finishing the fifth and last book in the series. I've been writing this for a long time and I'm not sure that I'll feel good when I write the last page. I have some serious anxiety about it. But when I'm done, I intend to write a stand-alone fantasy in a very different world dealing with very different issues. I don't think I'll ever abandon the medieval sensibility though. I relate to it. I find it to be romantic and heroic, and I'm truly a fan of epic fantasy in that tradition. I'm more of a naturalist at heart and I choose to write in the world that I do because the conflicts that arise between my characters and their environment, though seemingly fantastic, are the results of our closed system—our interactions on the sub-conscious level and the purely physical level with the world around us. This conflict and the conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism is thematic for me. And since I feel confined by technology, not liberated by it, I'd rather my characters lived in a non-industrialized world and played out these themes in such a world. Modern times are not magical for me. Nature is magical for me. I don't ever see my characters taking trains or driving cars. Since everything in my books is metaphorical anyway, I feel comfortable invoking the terms magical and naturalistic in the same sentence.
I write children's books as well as epic fantasy for adults, and for some reason I feel just the opposite about my children's books. They're tied to the real world, not the fantastic. Last August I published a children's mystery, albeit a bit old-fashioned in some respects, but certainly quite modern in many others. Subsequently, I've written two more in that same series. And more recently, I completed a picture book for young children set in a world I'm very familiar with, the fashion industry.
V: Who or what influenced you to become a fantasy writer? Can you credit any particular books or authors with sparking your interest in the genre?
GW: No, honestly. No fantasy ones come to mind. It's not that I haven't been influenced or inspired by other writers. I'd be a fool to claim otherwise. I adored Tolkein and Lewis as a child. I loved the Grimms Brothers and the Andersons. I much preferred reading fantastic stories to mysteries or thrillers. But I started writing fantasy later in my life than many other authors and my influences were much more thematic than genre based. I was a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Bryn Mawr College when I realized that I preferred writing novels to philosophical papers. It wasn't that I didn't love philosophy as a discipline. It's just that I wasn't disciplined enough for my love. I grew to dislike the academic life quickly and found it very confining. I had completed my Masters in a program that was a breath of fresh air—inspiring and exciting¬—and I went into a Doctoral program that was as dry as a camel's back. Still I loved ethics and I was fascinated by the inability of any philosopher adequately to justify an ethical system. From Plato to Spinoza, Hegel to Nietzsche, none truly succeeded. Nietzsche though was clearly the most influential author I'd ever read. He truly changed my entire way of thinking, and oddly, I began reading him in High School. He led me into philosophy. But I was constantly disappointed thereafter. He's a hard philosopher to begin with because he's so atypical of what a student will be reading later on if he pursues studies in the field. I realized that it was his way of writing, his way of thinking, that really inspired me. Aphorisms, short vibrant sentences, no treatises, no proofs, (well, almost none excepting the Eternal Recurrence, which isn't technically a proof) no deferring to God or the law or absolutes that stifle reason and end debates. It's hard to start with the best because none compare afterward.
I wrote fantasy because I wanted to be able to write about choice, the mechanisms for choice, the means we have to evaluate choice and value choice. I wanted to write about ethics but I didn't want to be forced to conform to any rules. I wanted to be able to contradict myself and change my mind and work things out in course of the story. It was a quest for me, a very personal quest. And I wanted the freedom that fantasy provided me with. Anything was possible and I was confined only by the limits of my imagination. It was a liberating cognitive process for me and it still is.
V: In your opinion, what is it that makes the fantasy genre so appealing to readers—and to writers?
GW: Writing fantasy is liberating. Reading it is like dreaming. You can put aside all the barriers that reality imposes on us and you can fly. My most favorite dreams are my flying dreams. I leap off the ground and just continue on into the sky, swooping over the tree tops. When I have a flying dream, I awake exhilarated, and I desperately want to return to it, but sadly, it fades so fast. Reading fantasy is as close to reliving that feeling as I can get. And writing it, when I'm immersed in a chapter and lost in my world, is just as wonderful. It's not simply escapist though. Far from it. Fantasy is rife with ethical dilemmas and questions about heroism, good and evil, right and wrong, choice, fate, determinism, naturalism and supernaturalism. And today, fantasy is a speculative window into the often dark possibilities that might await humankind. It's thoughtful and perceptive, stimulating and introspective, and all the while, it's exciting. What's not appealing about all of that? It's funny but so many people I know who come from more academic or professional backgrounds have preconceptions about fantasy. When I'm close enough to them to convince them to read my books, they're often surprised by the fact that they're fantastical and still intelligent and provocative. They expected them to merely be silly.
V: Tell me a little about your process. When you start work on a new piece of fiction, what comes to you first? The story? The characters? The setting?
GW: My process isn't typical of most authors. I'm certain of that in fact. I don't outline. I try hard not to plan out a book. It's not the story or the characters or the setting which comes to me first. So what's left? It's the mood. I listen to a song, I'm always listening to songs, and one will strike me with melancholy or frenetic energy, one will have a tone of sorrow or frustration, another of love, and I'm off and running. The feelings are what I want to capture and the story grows from there. I'll create a character who is in that mood that I'm grasping for and he'll start to speak, he'll interact with someone, he'll think about someone or something he desires or hates, all from the perspective of the mood I've found myself in. The mood frames his personality, how he walks, what concerns him, what he fears. I write a lot of poetry and I read a lot of poetry. They're encapsulated moods for me. And poems can shape my books. The big issues of meaning and value that great chords and evocative lyrics generate become the basis for my characters quests. When I'm stumbling, I turn to music and poetry. They'll bring me back or help me to write more even if they're somber and full of longing. Putting it all on paper gives me great solace, great comfort. I'm trying to find my way through my characters.
V: What are your favorite types of scenes to write?
I absolutely love to write scenes that resolve in a mad rush of energy. But to be honest, I really love to write just about any of the chapters you could pick. When I feel as if I'm driven to the last page of the chapter, can't wait to write each morning, can't wait to get into the minds of my characters and the action of the chapter, I'm at my most ecstatic point. And each chapter does resolve. Each one has to end. I adore final sentences. I adore the drama of a well turned final sentence. I guess what I'm saying is that I love to write and it doesn't matter much what point in the book I've reached.
Now that I've said that, I confess that I identify more with very personal situations, scenes where a character is struggling with choices that he or she faces, struggling with fate and with frustration, and searching for a reason to continue to hope and to move on. I'm partial to introspective writing and to situations that force us to think about who we are and why we're here.
I can write battle scenes all day too. When the horn blows and the battle turns, when the chills run down my arms and I feel the rush that great acts of heroism inspire, or the terrible tragedy of lives cut short too soon, the poignancy of a relationship in peril that brings tears to the eyes, I'm in my element.
As I answer your question, I realize that it's not the specific part of a book or a type of scene that interests me. It's any part and any scene. If I can approach my writing each day with passion, then it doesn't matter what I'm writing about.
V: What have been your favorite characters or character types to work with?
GW: Honestly, I don't have a favorite type. As I answered in the question above, for me it's what I bring to my writing each day, not what the writing brings to me. I add elements of all the things I love and hate in so many different characters. And my characters can be very moody, so they can have moments when they speak out of character or question what's come to be expected of them.
V: Who are the authors and what are the books populating your bookshelves? What do you like to read? Fantasy? Other alternative reality genres? Something else altogether?
GW: I read and read and read. Recently, for the most part, I've restricted my SFF reading to the books for friends of mine or those books recommended by friends of mine in the genre. I don't generally read speculative fiction. I'm a fan of the classics, a fan of historical fiction, a fan of very personal and dramatic novels whatever the age or period, and I do read an occasional thriller. I love Lawrence, Fiztgerald, Mann, Hesse, Wharton, Pasternak, Woolf, Waugh and Isherwood. I adored Tolkein when I was in college. I read Lewis and Heinlein and Vonnegut. Recently, I read a book by a Canadian author named Ernest Buckler, a recommendation by a friend. It's an old book and never garnered too much attention. The title is The Mountain and the Valley. It was fantastic. Each sentence was more beautiful than the next and the story brought me to tears. It was also the type of book my editor would have slashed to pieces!
V: What changes do you foresee happening in the fantasy genre in the next ten years? What sort of trends do you see taking shape?
GW: As in all creative areas, music, film, fashion, art, things change. Styles evolve. Each of us tries to push the envelope of our art in our own minds, I'm pretty sure. Or at least we try to represent what we love in a way that's fresh and new. Fantasy has never been restricted by anything but the limits of our imaginations, so it has more potential for change than many other genres. But today we're seeing more and more crossover titles, more fantasy that isn't as tightly classified as it has been in the past. If McCarthy can make Oprah's list with as dark and tragic a book as The Road, then we'll certainly be seeing much more speculative fiction being published in the future. We authors aren't in control of what hits the shelves. We're only in control of what we choose to write. And we fantasy authors have frequently been relegated to areas of the stores that aren't always taken all that seriously by readers of 'literature,' little do they often know. It's not that we're writing so differently today. There was always very intelligent, provocative SFF in the market and dumb, fast food fantasy too. It's just that the public, perhaps by virtue of commercial phenomena like Potter and The Lord of the Rings, is more likely to purchase a fantasy novel today.
Publishing is an industry. We have choices as authors to write what we love as best as we can, or to write what's going to sell. They're not often the same thing. They're probably not usually the same thing in fact. But there are some great independent and small presses today who aren't governed by the same rules of commerce that some of their larger competitors are. They can be the vanguard and hopefully they'll thrive in the process. Someone's got to take chances.
Trends come and go. That's what defines them. And weltanschauungs change more rapidly than they did in the past. With authors like Hal Duncan and Jeff Vandermeer, we're seeing a very modern type of fantasy that retains the oddness that makes it unique, a type that probably wouldn't have been written prior to the publication of China's books. He liberated the genre to an extent, and his weird darkness casts its shadow over so much of what we're seeing now. It's healthy for us all. In fact it's wonderful. And it's popular in an edgy, risque way. It feels new and so it appeals to younger readers who are tired of the more traditional tropes, and to seasoned readers who appreciate the blossoming creativity of it. As I said before, it's our imaginations alone that limit us when we're writing in this genre. So I think we'll continue to see a lot more authors write in this direction, away from what feels safe, until what they're writing begins to feel safe too. My fear is only that this may have already happened.
V: Any closing comments?
GW: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to answer your questions, Violet. I'm in an odd place in the genre today and I really appreciate your having called on me to contribute here. My books are often mistaken for things they are not. They seem traditional, they utilize traditional tropes. I don't break any ground with regard to my made-up characters. Instead, I use traditional means to lure the unsuspecting readers in and then to force them to re-think and hopefully appreciate what perceptivity and innovation of thought traditional frameworks can attain. We all innovate in our own ways, some by virtue of our world-building, our characterizations, our ability to create new and fantastic creatures, or by tapping into the spirit of the times, and some by virtue of our ideas and our concerns. One thing seems to be pretty consistent about my series though. People enjoy it when they read it. I've developed some great fans over the years who truly 'get' what I'm trying to accomplish with my books and I'm grateful to them. And now with The Revenge of the Elves, my own style has changed pretty dramatically. The evolution of the story I'm telling demanded that it change. We often begin journeys, unaware of where they will ultimately take us, and on the way we learn, we grow, we change. When you write a long series, this not only happens to the characters, but it happens to the author as well. I'm really pleased with Revenge. It mirrors in style what's happened to the world it takes place in, and I'm comfortable that my readers will recognize this and appreciate it.
Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of ARWZ.com. She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.