A quick interview with Russell Kirkpatrick: Epic Fantasy Author
You’ll be seeing a lot more author interviews on this site in the next few months, mainly as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign. IFWG Publishing moved most of its intended 2020 new release titles into 2021, to offset the impact of COVID-19, in effect caching treasures. They are excited to release them from February to June 2021 ( an ‘uncaching’). The Uncaching the Treasures campaign is extensive, including partnering with quality reviewers, bloggists, podcasters, and events, both virtual and physical. Near on 20 titles will be uncached, and yours truly has signed up to help promote.
First author I’ll be interviewing as part of this campaign is an awesome friend of mine, Russell Kirkpatrick! An award-winning, best-selling author of both epic fantasy books and thematic atlases, Russell’s first novel was the biggest-selling debut fantasy of 2008 in the USA, and his fiction has won three Sir Julius Vogel awards. Atlases he’s worked on have twice been finalists in New Zealand’s Montana Book Awards. He’s still a university lecturer, despite having tried to retire at least twice. Although he lives in Canberra, Australia with Kylie and Rogue (one of whom is a dachshund), he is most definitely a New Zealander. His biggest claim to fame is that he has the most wonderful group of friends in the world. Today, Russell talks about his latest novel, Silent Sorrow, as well as some other aspects of his writing process. Welcome, Russell!
As well as an award-winning fantasy writer, you’re a writer of thematic atlases! What are thematic atlases and does the work you do with them influence your writing, especially in new novel, Silent Sorrow?
So a standard atlas, the kind you might have used before Google Maps, shows physical features, roads, places and administrative boundaries. These are supposedly the ‘real’ landscape, though there’s a lot of important things missing from maps like these. A thematic atlas tries to highlight these important missing themes by devoting a map or series of maps to them – like average annual rainfall, for example, or employment, or First Nations people. The First Nations people map is an excellent example of a thematic map. It doesn’t have roads or rivers or mountains, just information consistent with one specific theme. I make atlases like this, and they haven’t been superseded by Google Maps like normal atlases have.
My work with maps and atlases has definitely influenced the way I think about the world. In particular, it informs what constitutes a white western gaze and what realities are hidden from that gaze. In Silent Sorrow I definitely try to make some of those realities visible, though inevitably things are still often seen from my own viewpoint.
You’ve also been a geography lecturer. How does that work influence your fantasy and your world-building?
Aside from the obvious head start geography gives me in world-building (both physical and cultural), having immersed myself in the subject has had an even broader influence on my fantasy writing. In particular exposure to post-colonial ideas helped me set up the underlying rationale for the basic global conflict underpinning the narrative in Silent Sorrow. I should emphasise that the world of Silent Sorrow is not a thinly-disguised metaphor for the distressing global disparities in our own world: my world is driven by quite a different dynamic.
I do struggle with a tendency towards realism. So much of what I read in the genre is geographically implausible, but it’s often the implausibility that makes it so interesting. I have to remind myself that it’s called “fantasy” for a reason, and not everything needs a hard science explanation.
What other writers influence your fiction? Who are some of your favourite authors and why?
Tolkien and Lewis were the first, followed by Le Guin (though not Earthsea, which I dislike) and, latterly, Reynolds, Bujold, Abercrombie, Elliot and a pile of others. I love large canvases and huge conflicts with great attention to detail, which is what drew me to Tolkien and Lewis (but not the awful LOTR and Hobbit movies). Le Guin gave me compelling cultural geography (The Dispossessed!) and a commitment to social justice. The other writers embellished this, adding cynicism, biting humour, depth of characterisation and stories that matter.
You say in your bio you have the most amazing friends in the world. How do they/how have they helped you on your author journey and how important is the speculative fiction community to you?
They are the most amazing friends. They gave me a home, made me feel welcome, offered gentle (and sometimes fierce) critiques of my work, and made a wide variety of baked goods which I recklessly consumed. They are thoughtful, talented, dedicated and working hard to rid themselves of their privilege.
You’re originally from New Zealand, though you live in Canberra now. How do you think your NZ background/identity affects your fiction? Do you think there’s differences between Australian and NZ spec fic writers in how they write and see the world? Will we see some of that in Silent Sorrow?
Being a New Zealander gave me lots of opportunity to get outdoors and experience what it’s like to interact with a mountainous wilderness. It’s no surprise these landscapes feature heavily in my work. It’s only a small reveal to say the characters in Silent Sorrow have to learn to stop trying to dominate nature and start living within its limits, a lesson New Zealanders learn when young (or they die in remote valleys and on mountainsides).
New Zealand authors have tended to write small: a trip to the corner shops, growing up in a small town, living on the coast. I find Australian writers are more prepared to engage with a larger canvas, yet few white writers look to their own enormous continent as inspiration, because they continue to struggle with issues around identity. With Silent Sorrow I’ve tried not to see our world at all, but imagine something with different rules and attitudes and a different fundamental conflict – science vs the old gods.
As the interview starts to delve more specifically into Silent Sorrow, let’s look at the book’s blurb:
Brilliant and ambitious, Remezov is already recognised as the best earthquake predictor in the business. He travels to the ancient city of Hanemark to be received into the powerful Guild of Geographers, the youngest inductee in decades.
On the way he finds a dead scientist’s diary, warning of an imminent invasion. Nonsense, of course—except the diary explains otherwise puzzling occurrences. Does he surrender it to the Guild, risking accusations he killed the scientist and stole the diary—all for an invasion that may never come—or does he keep it and use it to make his name? He has to decide soon, because he’s being hunted by something leaving a trail of mutilated bodies across the city.
The lizards are coming…
Tell us more about Silent Sorrow. What inspired the story?
Silent Sorrow has its genesis in a panel at a New Zealand SF convention over a decade ago. I was part of a discussion that talked about Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and tentatively (all right, stridently) argued that fantasy privileges human agency over social structure – Frodo the insignificant’s courage, and the bravery of a few mates, will always overcome the power and might of the dark forces set on enslaving the world. I tried to make the case that it was time fantasy explored the much more realistic notion that social structure – the vast, faceless system we’re organised by (call it capitalism if you like) – always suffocates human agency. There isn’t one ring to cast into the fire, there’s 8 billion.
We see this struggle everywhere. I teach a Global Environmental Futures course at Uni. Students turn up to class with their lovely activism, their reduce/reuse/recycle attitude and have taken responsibility for their own actions, the way they’ve been taught at school. They’re shocked when they learn their recycling isn’t recycled, and that corporates are responsible for the vast majority of global warming (don’t shoot me, I’m generalising, I haven’t got time to check the figures). The best they can do is a flea-bite. The de-emphasis of society and the focus on individualism has exacerbated this trend. Students feel powerless. Social structure triumphs over human agency
humans use the power of aggregation and band together, rediscover society and let their sheer numbers make a difference. Frodo isn’t going to win the battle against climate change on his own. We need a million, a billion Frodo’s to take action in the market. The Frodo’s are already doing this by demanding their super funds stop investing in fossil fuel, or using boycotts to pull polluters into line.
So – what if this happened in a fantasy novel? That’s the premise of Silent Sorrow: attempting to overcome a global existential threat by united social action. A look at the title of the book suggests it doesn’t go well, not at the start. Yes, the story is about a few individuals, and it’s not a dry university course, but there is no Chosen One, there are no saviours.
Can’t emphasise this enough. Fantasy as a genre reinforces the notion that brave individuals can triumph over the dark forces threatening us. This is NOT the message we need right now. We need to rediscover our social mojo. Tell you what, I was really surprised by how much drama and action and individual courage this approach generated, as well as how different the novel feels to its contemporaries.
I know that this novel had some challenges along the road to publication (your last fantasy trilogy wrapped up in 2009). Are you able to tell us about that and what helped overcome them? Any advice for people in similar situations?
Yeah, well, things didn’t work out great after 2009. I had serious health issues and a relationship breakdown that killed all the momentum I’d built up in the preceding decade. Added to that was the sudden deflation of the market, which hit midlist authors like myself extremely hard. While I’ve sorted my health and I’m in a wonderful relationship, I was not able to solve the collapse of the midlist. I’ve had to adjust to the new reality and recognise that Big 5 publishers are looking for something slightly different to what I offer. So be it! IFWG have very bravely picked up Silent Sorrow which, with its length and plethora of maps, is expensive to produce.
I think I’ve written a great book, but that doesn’t automatically qualify me for a lucrative publishing deal (or any deal at all). I have an unshakeable core belief in my own ability, one that has withstood stripping away layers of white male entitlement. That sort of unshakeable belief, whether real or deluded, is what authors need to ride out the rough patches in their careers. I’ve also had the generous and unfailing support of friends and fellow writers, which means the whole expanding universe to me.
How do you think Silent Sorrow is different to other books out there? (Give us your elevator pitch) Do you have any comp titles to compare the novel to for readers?
I’ve read two other fantasy series that have tackled this notion: Martin’s Game of Thrones and Abercrombie’s The First Law. In both novels the better you were as a person the swifter you died, and their endings were chaotic and certainly not triumphant. I’ll be sure not to repeat those mistakes!
“In a land so unstable geographers predict earthquakes like forecasting the weather, it is a foolish thing to banish the gods keeping the continents from falling apart – but that is what Medanos has done. The gods flee to nearby Beduil, which suffers catastrophic quakes as the world plunges out of balance. The Beduil solution is to launch an invasion to wipe out every trace of the Medanans, so the banished gods might return.”
What novels would I compare it to? Definitely similar in tone and intricacy to Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and with Abercrombie’s bite.
What does Silent Sorrow have in common with your previous novels (aside from you writing them)? How is it different?
Silent Sorrow is a much more active novel, with deeper characters, more humour and a faster pace than anything I’ve had published. It’s a world-spanning fantasy with crisp, believable worldbuilding that directly affects the plot, similar to what I’ve written before. Readers acquainted with my previous work will find this familiar, but also quite different in its approach. It’s definitely a step up in quality.
What’s next on the writing horizon for you?
I have the rest of this story to tell, a YA science fiction superhero novel to rewrite and a literary SF novel to complete.
I found this interview fascinating so thanks so much Russell for putting in the effort to answer so many questions. You can pre-order Silent Sorrow from the links found here, with the book released 1st Feb 2021. Silent Sorrow is available in all good ebook and print outlets. It is distributed through Gazelle (UK/Europe), Novella (Australia) and IPG (North America).