This Wednesday, I would like to welcome Michael Edward McNally to talk about his epic series, The Norothian Cycle.
1. Tell me more about the inspiration behind The Sable City and the Norothian Cycle?
I see some questions relating to world-building and characters down a little further, so I’ll get into how those things served as inspiration then. Overall, while the story is one of those things that I just felt like I “had to write,” the way I try to approach the actual writing is that while it is a “Fantasy” series – with magic and dragons and dwarves and what all – that’s totally incidental to the story.
2. What do you fear? Tell me about your own phobias.
I fear wilful stupidity, as it’s become such a point of pride in and of itself for the truly ignorant. Like a lack of critical thinking skills is something to be celebrated, and only what somebody “feels” or “knows” in their “gut” can be true, all evidence to the contrary. In fact, it’s better if there is no evidence, as that would somehow taint the “purity” of just feeling something is true. Leads to all manner of horrendous policy decisions on a national and personal level.
3. The epic fantasy genre has been known for ‘seriousness’ going hand-in-hand with its high tone, but you chose to undercut this by weaving humour into the narrative along the way – could you tell me more about the thinking behind this as I noted you wanted to avoid being ‘too grim’ or being described as ‘dark fantasy’? Do you think this approach is one of the elements that has made the series unique?
Part of it is that while I loved Fantasy as a kid (Tolkien, David Eddings, Lloyd Alexander, et al), the feature I found most common to a lot of what is billed as more “grown up” Fantasy is that it’s simply more violent, dark, or sexually charged. Not necessarily any more complex or deep than what might be classified as YA, just…unpleasant, and merrily gratuitous in any number of ways. Which is fine, as far as that goes, I just think there is room to go another route. When I want to read about man’s inhumanity, vice, and general ability to be horrible, I read actual History. If I still want to cling to some faint hope that people really aren’t all bad despite their flaws and complexities, I’ll read my kind of Fantasy.
4. Why did you decide to have a female protagonist and were there any individuals, living, dead, famous or not, who were a particular influence on Tilda Lanai?
I don’t think I did decide, it was one of those “the character picked me” things. I started the story in large part because I got an image in my head of a young woman approaching a wounded warhorse on a field of steppe grass, holding out a bright red apple. I basically just started writing this story to find out who she was, and what she was doing.
She turned out to be Tilda Lanai, and while I’m sure there are plenty of influences on her character – personal, historic, or imaginary – now after four books I’m past being able to unravel them back to the source.
5. In the Norothian Cycle, you have created an entire histories, cities and cultures – what is the appeal of world-building on this scale?
The weird thing was, all that world-building came first, and it was never meant to be the setting for a story. It was a hobby I started while I was grad student studying Russian/East European History, after I decided to give up literature and writing in favor of studying something I felt could be taught, as I was on the path of becoming a college prof at that point. Those dammed up creative juices went another way, as they are wont to do, and I wound up creating a world from scratch; a primitive place at only a tribal level of human development. As a result of the aforementioned childhood reading Tolkien and the boys, it was also a world of magic, dragons, different gods, etc. Then I sort of “played out” a couple thousand years of history for the world, basically exploring ridiculous questions like how the existence of magic might actually shape things like religious or technological development in a “real world.” After about a decade, I had a complicated world at an early gunpowder/Age of Sail tech level filling lots of notebooks and reams of map paper. That’s when Tilda showed up, and the whole thing turned into the setting for her story.
6. Following on from the previous question, how do you balance portraying the wider political and social aspects of the world whilst also keeping the focus on your characters and their story?
See, that’s one of the harder things for me, as while I am fascinated with the minutiae of historical forces and political developments, I know not everybody feels the same. Particularly not those who may have just picked up a Fantasy book to see somebody cut the head off something.
If anything, I err toward leaving more of the background in there, though believe it or not, I do take a ton of stuff out from draft to draft. I had a friend say something to me once that sort of stuck. Paraphrasing, and leaving out the profanity, she basically convinced me that I’d be happier writing books that had too much in them for dumb people to follow, than I would be writing books with too little in them for smart people to find interesting. Totally elitist and snobby, I know, but I’m not a big fan of most entertainment geared toward the Least Common Denominator.
7. The Lord of the Rings established the premise of a motley band of adventurers going out on a quest together to seek their fortune – why do you think this set-up still endures in the fantasy genre? Can tropes and clichés be as much a blessing as they can be a burden?
Heck, Homer established that premise a long time before Tolkien. Those Greeks had to get a posse together to sack Troy, get back home, or even go looking for a fleece.
Specifically in Epic Fantasy, I think it’s a great boon to have a cast of characters as a “party,” as it widens the scope of the view points, which widens the plotlines and actions. I think Epics should be big, which doesn’t mean they have to lack introspection. It just means there’s room for more. I’m fine with tropes and clichés that serve a purpose, and as long as they are not just there because that’s the way it is supposed to be.
8. With the popularity of shows such as A Game of Thrones at the moment, where do you think the public appetite for speculative fiction, which used to be seen as the sole reserve of geeks and nerds, has come from? Do you think it is a good thing for our respective genres?
I think the commoditization of virtually all storytelling, be it as books, movies, or film, has only increased the rate at which everything tends to look like everything else. Or rather, they tend to look more and more like whatever made some money yesterday. Romances and Thrillers are always the biggest sellers, and they get more and more alike more rapidly, with the tropes and genre clichés becoming so ingrained that they are actual requirements, and some readers will rebel if they are not there. Other readers however, go looking for something, anything, different.
For a lot of speculative fiction, on the other hand, difference itself is almost a trope. Unique worlds and characters are part and parcel of the landscape, and you can’t make everything different in exactly the same way. Sure, there will be plenty of stuff that is derivative of something else, but that’s not the same as knowing ahead of time that the boy and girl are going to fall in love and have fantastic sex, or that the murderer is going to get caught by the clever detective. The romantic lead or the superspy is not going to get his head lopped off, that’s a given. Ned Stark, on the other hand…
9. If you were going to direct the movie series of The Norothian Cycle – where would you set it for location filming, and who would you cast in the lead roles if you had your pick of Hollywood’s best and brightest?
Here’s the thing, I always find the “who would you cast in the movie?” question a uniquely pointless and vaguely masturbatory one for writers to spend a lot of time thinking about. First, if some studio is ever making a movie of your book, they aren’t going to give a flying squirt who you want to cast, or where you want to film. There are people who get paid to do that, and they aren’t going to waive their check and ask what the scribbling monkey thinks about it. Second, a character or a place in a book is created in the mind of the reader as much as they are in the mind of the writer. That sort of involvement, which you simply don’t get in any other kind of story-delivery system, is the very thing that makes books better than movies or TV. Why would I ever want to spoil that for a reader by saying “Tilda looks just like X, John Deskata looks just like Y, and the city of Souterm has the same street map as Z?”
10. So what does 2012 hold for M. Edward McNally? Any last words?
“Words, words, words.”
(Figured I’d quote Hamlet there in a last ditch attempt to look “deep.”)
Thank you, my liege!
The Sable City is available at the following links:
M. Edward Mcnally’s short stories are also currently FREE on Smashwords
If you would like to find out more about M. Edward McNally, please go to the following links: