A quick interview with Cary J. Lenehan: Epic Fantasy Author

Welcome to my fifth IFWG author interview for this year! It’s published as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign. 

Cary J. Lenehan is a former trades assistant, soldier, public servant, cab driver, truck driver, game designer, fishmonger, horticulturalist and university tutor—among other things. His hobbies include collecting and reading books (the non-fiction are Dewey decimalised), Tasmanian native plants (particularly the edible ones), medieval re-creation and gaming. Over the years he has taught people how to use everything from shortswords to rocket launchers. He met his wife at an SF Convention while cosplaying and they have not looked back. He was born in Sydney before marrying and moving to the Snowy Mountains where they started their family. They moved to Tasmania for the warmer winters and are not likely to ever leave it. Looking out of the window beside Cary’s computer is a sweeping view of Mount Wellington/Kunanyi and its range. Welcome, Cary, as we celebrate the publication of your latest Warriors of Vhast novel, Gathering the Strands!

Gathering the Strands is Book 5 of The Warriors of Vhast series. Just in case new readers are jumping in, tell us a bit about Vhast, what the series is about and why fantasy readers will love it.

It is an epic fantasy covering a broad sweep of story with parts revealed as the books progress. It is a classic good versus evil with a twist that becomes apparent over time. I have been a poet and a story-teller for forty years and this shows. A warning to those who are just starting out with Vhast, do not ignore the poems at the start of each book. They are, in some ways, clues, and in others, summaries. I like leaving clues and Easter eggs.

I have characters from diverse ethnic, social, and other backgrounds to reflect real life and I try and allow those characters to react as realistically as I can in reaction to the situations that they face. At the same time I try and avoid being too shackled to the tropes. I think that readers (at least from feedback) enjoy strong female characters with agency and my slightly different approach to the genre.

Are there comparable fantasy titles similar to your series for readers to know where you fit in the genre? What fantasy do you love to read?

In the way it moves from being (without giving too much away) straight fantasy to science fiction it shares elements with Darkover. In the broad sweep of history (and attention to culture) it shares elements with Tolkien. It shows roots running back to the authors that influenced my childhood reading: H. Rider Haggard (She, King Solomon’s Mines) and the Russians. More people survive than in Game of Thrones.

My time is occupied with writing and I rarely get a chance to read now, but I have a continued addiction to Pratchett.

From Gathering the Strands, I can tell you put a lot of thought into world-building. Why do you think world-building is so important in fantasy writing and what does it bring to a story? What new aspects of worldbuilding (if any) did you need to think about for Book Five?

I’ve actually just taught a world-building class to some YA writers this week for the local Writer’s Centre and this is how I got into writing, sharing a panel with George R R Martin many years ago and he told me to put my gaming to use and start writing. I did.

I do not believe that you can write a story without building a world first. You may decide to take the one we live in and just tweak it a bit. That is OK. We call that Urban Fantasy. You may do what I have done and build something with a history going back 15,000 years. That is OK as well. You may create a 100-acre wood and populate it with a child and group of curiously animate stuffed animals. That works.

The more detail you have in your world (although not necessarily put into the stories) the easier it is to get the reader to suspend disbelief and to accept the world and reality you present them with. I have stories where people are being moved from a prison to a ship in the middle of the night. The readers do not need to know that they are being kept quiet to avoid disturbing the rich folk they pass, but I know that. All the readers need is that they are being kept quiet. I, however, have a map and know who owns the houses along the way. Making noise will cause major issues for you.

If you have done the world-building before you get to writing you do not need to break the flow of thought to stop and work something out. You open the right file and have these things.

Gathering the Strands, like your previous books, features many switching points of view to tell the story. Why was it important to have so many main characters and what were some of the advantages and challenges of doing so?

Remember what I said about Russian influences? Tolstoy, in particular, was fond of the big cast. I don’t hold with the ‘great man’ idea of history. Everything happens as a result of a dedicated group changing things and bringing them to fruition. Because no one character is Superman or Wonder Woman ot a ‘Mary Sue’ who gets the skills they need when they need them, each has their limitations, and needs to rely on others to fill the gaps. Besides, each person has a different view of what is happening and has their own thoughts on the matter.

Astrid has a certain directness to her. Theodora is a 120-year old teenager. Rani comes from a sheltered high-caste background. Thord is swept up in the achievement of his dreams. Hulagu is following a prophecy. Bianca is feeling secure in having a family after growing up as an orphan. Stefan, well he is an a bit of a state of shock with all of the things he keeps coming up to (two wives he loves, killing a dragon, becoming a general) when he just left home looking for a bit more than leather-working. Each brings different things to the story.

What was the hardest part of writing Gathering the Strands? What was the easiest?

It may get people hating me for saying this, but it has not been hard (apart from fussing over words in the re-writes and keeping the calendar straight). It’s been fun and a continued pleasure. I enjoyed it immensely. I knew my characters. I set them up with situations and then I let the pen do the talking and sat back and watched where they went.

You’ve had a very eclectic life, with a range of interests and jobs. How are these experiences reflected in your Warriors of Vhast series?

Everything comes into play. I can judge how hard a shot is with a bow, as I have used enough of them. From working for a Coroner, I know how bodies come apart. I never look at a scene myself without considering the plants and what belongs there. People react in predictably unpredictable ways (and I have the background in sociology, statistics, and maths for that).

Even with my magic I can think of spells as having the effect of rockets, of grenades etc. By the way, according to my gaming system I can tell you how each spell works and some I wanted to use I could not as the character lacked the strength to pull it off. I had to find another work-around (one of the big examples here is in the death of a dragon in an earlier book).

You have a Patreon where you share with Patrons content from behind the scenes of your writing and your world. Do you want to talk a bit about how Patreon has worked for you as an author, what having a community brings to your writing life and what people can expect if they join up to become your Patron?

My Patreon gives me a chance to express my skills even more than just the writing. For instance, if a food gets mentioned in the books or stories, I have cooked it. Some recipes and foods are made up by me from bush foods of my local area and from a sense of ‘this should work’ and I play with it until it does. I publish these at my Patreon. So you can eat the foods as approved by the author.

That is also where I put the maps to the settlements, the drawings and descriptions of the plants and the details of the animals so that a gamer can use them to play an RPG in my world (and the rules for that are starting to come out as well). We even have a Tarot deck (my wife makes the cards) to go with what I started making up for the books.

I made a conscious decision, when I started writing, to avoid including endless back stories and side stories. It is actually why I started doing Patreon to give an outlet to these. So far I have been putting stories (along with maps, recipes, drawings etc) this since April 2016. So far 39 stories have come out. Some have just been one part (an average is 6,000 words). Most have been 2-part and some three (and so a lot longer).

The stories go back 10,000 years into the history of Vhast and, while they are not essential to reading the books, provide a lot more context. Some of the more recent stories give background to the main characters, talking about their birth and things that happened in their childhood. Others tell what else is happening in Vhast. The Kingdom of Freehold is virtually ignored in the books, although it has one of the larger armies in The Land. Its story is told in Patreon.

The Land, where the books are largely set, is just one continent on a world that is larger than Terra and with far more ocean. Other stories are set on other continents and islands and say what is happening there, often concurrent with the books. Sometimes a reference in the books will mean more if you have read a story. Although none are essential reading, I like having Easter eggs for my Patreon subscribers to give them an extra ‘moment’ in their reading. They seem to like this.

Patreon works well for me and lets me do things (like go to Conventions) that I would not otherwise be able to do. You can read more about my Patron levels here.

You’ve developed games in the past. How did they prepare you for writing novels? Is there much crossover?

It does not matter if you are writing a game, a story, a poem, or a book. It is all story-telling. It is just the canvas that changes. I developed by first two games before crowd-funding. One was a set of miniatures rules (with examples from an early version of Vhast). It was designed to be a 1:10 scale (1 miniature is 10 people) and able to cover almost any situation from the earliest history with no magic to full-on fantasy. We play tested rules for da Vinci’s weapons, for a Dragon worth as much as a single army, for mages, for priests, for the different potential armies of Vhast. It worked with simple rules summarised on a laminated card. We made our price-point low because we knew our production costs and did not want to rip people off. People thought it could not be any good because we were charging so little.

The other was a Cyber-punk game set in the excellent near future of Marianne de Pierres Nylon Angel trilogy. Among others Steve Jackson loved it. Between them they also nearly sent us broke. I had fantastic critical reviews and received an offer to lecture in games design at a University, but financially we lacked the capital to exploit what we had. Nylon Angel has rules for grenades that get Special Forces soldiers excited for being just like the real thing, it has rules for drugs based on research from MIMS, it has animals and plants based on my years spent in the bush (and yes I have met most Australian snakes, and eaten a few, run into a crocodile when I dived in a river, seen a White Pointer close up without a cage, can crack a whip, can survive off the plants around me, and all of the other Australian tropes). I am still very happy with it.

Vhast is now a game as well as books and stories and one day it will come out as an RPG. Still not sure how, but we will probably start dribbling it out through Patreon before doing a crowd-funding release.

Do you have a favourite/fun/interesting teaser passage from Gathering the Strands you’d like to share with readers?

Brother Joachim

Looking ahead of me I can see clumps of spearmen, being joined now by some of the archers from among those annoying riders. It looks like they have spread out into small units to avoid being easily surrounded. They are showing more planning than I thought that they would. I had expected that my holding the chariots back would provoke a charge.

I wonder if those heretic heavy cavalry are anywhere around. I cannot see them yet, but they probably will not appear until I commit my forces. I need to wrap them up quickly, but there are probably no more that twenty or thirty of them and Brother Job has orders to hold his fire with the weapons of the Archangels and take them out of the battle first when they finally appear.

He looked around the battlefield. It is getting to be time for us to attack. There is no need to try for fancy tactics here. We will just sweep this rabble aside with the chariots and then head for the village quickly. It is probably being abandoned as my army moves up and this lot are trying to buy time for them.

Some, probably, will not even stand when I charge, but will ride back to their families and try and help them flee. I cannot have that as they will warn the next village and they will warn the one after that. I will give them no mercy. The men must die, and the women and children pay for their heresy by being made slaves for seven generations.

Our traders, always with one of the Flails of God in their numbers, have told me that this creek bed dips, but that chariots can just ride through it and then easily, but slowly ascend up the other side to the top of the ridge. This is what we will do. Once we are there we will continue straight on and encircle them.

Brother Joachim called out his orders and the chariots began to form up into their new positions as they moved. The light chariots shifted to the flanks and the four-horse chariots moved up into an extended line that ran far to the left and right two deep.

There are only two short paces between them. The second rank line up behind the gaps of the first. The books, written down from the words of the Archangels themselves, say that this is the way to sweep aside a rabble on foot. They halted. We are just out of range of the missiles of the infantry who stand there ahead of us.

He looked around and raised his hand with the loud-speaking token and pronounced a blessing on them all before calling his army to advance at the walk. He had scarce done so when he noticed that his crossbowman had fallen, and his loader was trying to untie him and take his place.

My chariot has already been hit by several of those tiny arrows that the Khitan like to use at long range as we move forward. Now one can be seen in the eye of the man. A pity, the man has been with me for several years and was a devout believer who has even helped at the higher ceremonies when he was called to.

The Khitan arrows have been harassing my people, and it seems my chariot in particular, for some time and my man has just been unlucky. Still, that luck is going to change. They moved closer and, using his magic, he called first for the chariots to go to a trot and then, once they were all moving at that speed, for the charge.

A roar erupts from my people as they rush forward into the ordained attack. It was a roar so loud that it prevented even his amplified voice from being heard when, looking ahead, he finally was able to see what was now unfolding there ahead of their advance.

When can we expect Book Six in the Vhast series and what do you think your next project might be after Vhast?

Following the Braid is with IFWG, my publisher and the release date is up to them. Book 7 is written, but I want to rewrite it again. I do this a lot. The last book is The Fall of the Adversaries and I am indecisive over the last 30 or so pages. In other words it is nearly done.

There is no ‘after Vhast’. I have 34 stories promised to Patreon so far. Of these only eight are not complete at present (although I will keep re-writing until stories are released). I look forward to finishing them and, when the books are finished hopefully there will be a demand for the stories to be collected and come out. They only last on Patreon for a year or so before I take them down; so many people have yet to read the early ones. Because I am writing fantasy, I can do sub-genre stories. I have written horror, romance, a western, crime, all set in the one world.

Vhast is a whole world and I am just scratching the surface. There are continents where I have yet to set stories (and I am trying to avoid giving a spoiler on stories that I know I will write soon). This needs to be remedied, but in many cases this needs more time for world-building (an addictive exercise). I can bring out a cook book, Atlases, and books on the plants and animals. There is so much that can continue on …

Thanks so much for your responses today, Cary! Readers, you can read more about Gathering the Strands at the publisher’s website with the book available for purchase in all good ebook and print outlets. It is distributed through Gazelle (UK/Europe), Novella (Australia) and IPG (North America). You can also sign up to Cary’s Patreon here or visit his website here.