NOTE: Due to technical glitches with Twitter itself, we lost our guest half way through so I finished the interview with audience’s questions and my own via email. Hence, the transcript has been culled into a neater format than normal for purposes of clarity and transitions between the two formats. The full context of the chat is here with the exception of a few side comments irrelevant to the discussion (i.e. chitchat) and all questions are attributed to a group moniker instead of individual attendees.
SFFWRTCHT: Welcome to Science Fiction Fantasy Writer´s Chat. Our guest John R. Fultz teaches kids to love heavy metal by day and tells stories by night. His stories have appeared in anthologies like Way Of The Wizard and Cthulhu´s Reign and zines like Black Gate, Weird Tales and Lightspeed. His debut novel, book 1 of the Shaper Trilogy, Seven Princes, is out from Orbit this month. His comic, Primordia, was published by Archaia Comics in three issues in 2007-2008.
John R. Fultz: Ha! Actually, I teach them to love the English language and all its powerful spells and powers…
JRF: My interest in SFF probably came from comics–as a kid I was reading them before I could read…making up stories about the pics. Also, an early book of faerie tales that my uncle Johnny gave me…that was one of the first books I ever read and re-read.. That book had Jack the Giant-Killer and tons of other stories–illustrated n the old school style. That lead me to discovering The Hobbit when I was in third grade, which led me to LOTR right around the time of Bakshi’s movie. Yes, fairie tales have always fascinated me…but there’s more of that influence in PRIMORDIA (my comic) than in SEVEN PRINCES. I’ve called PRIMORDIA a “stone-age fairie tale”…
SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors/books growing up?
JRF: Faves when growing up: Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Clark Ashton Smith rocked my world when I was 10 or 11… Other early faves: Moorcock (ELRIC), Lovecraft, some Lin Carter (LOST WORLDS is his best work), etc. It wasn’t until college that I discovered Lord Dunsany’s work, which redefined fantasy fiction for me–”A Dreamer’s Tales” — Also in college: Tanith Lee’s work captivated me, Darrell Schweitzer’s short stories blew my mind (still do), & Robert Silverberg.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you find Clark Ashton Smith?
JRF: I found Clark Ashton Smith thanks to Lin Carter–I think the first story I read was something Lin Carter put in a collection. It may have been one of those Smith fragments that Carter turned into a story. “The Stairs in the Crypt” or “The Scroll of Morloc.” I quickly rushed to the used bookstore and found my first Clark Ashton Smith collection…the one with Malygris on the cover.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you still have that collection?
JRF: No, I don’t have that CAS book, but I still have my ’90s Book of Zothique & Book of Hyperborea from Necropress–the very best.
SFFWRTCHT: How about the old Ballantine CAS books? Have those?
JRF: I think the one I had was a Ballantine. It had “The Death of Malygris” in it, and some other Poseidonis tales. CAS rules.
SFFWRTCHT: And Lord Dunsany too or was that later?
JRF: Yes, Dunsany came to me in college–thanks to WEIRD TALES, which I adored, during the early years of the Schweitzer/Scithers era Finding Dunsany is finding the golden core of all modern fantasy…the spice of Arakis…it’s as close to perfect as u can get
SFFWRTCHT: Re: Conan and Kull. Is that the sort of feel to Seven Princes?
JRF: Yes, I’d say there is a significant dose of that. But there is far more as well…
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your favorite CAS story, and what specifically did you take from the writing of CAS?
JRF: Great question! My favorite CAS story HAS to be “The Dark Eidolon.” It’s arguably the best of the Zothique stories—which are arguably the best of Smith’s dark fantasy tales. What I took from CAS’s writing was mainly the dark-yet-beautiful imagery and the sense that sorcery is a font of mystery that is inexhaustible and as old as time itself. CAS painted gorgeous pictures of horrible things, he infused horror with his fantasy in an entirely unique way…he created sparkling images of lost worlds… “secret worlds incredible” to use his own phrase. Wild imagination unleashed with a poetic sensibility. That’s the core of what CAS offers, but there is so much more.
SFFWRTCHT: Who is your favorite of Howard’s characters?
JRF: My fave Howard character is Kull the Conqueror (although I also love Conan). Kulll was more Shakespearean than Conan. However, my favorite Howard STORY is “Valley of the Worm,” which features the warrior known as Niord…. Howard’s love of Shakespeare and poetic talent really shows through in the Kull tales. They came earlier than Conan and seem to be more lyrical…at least to me… Still, as a youth it was the Conan books (w/ Frazetta covers) that captivated me.
SFFWRTCHT: Who do you consider your forebears, in terms of your writing?
JRF: My forebears? Well, I’ve been told that I write in a somewhat Robert E. Howard style–& I’ve always felt a spiritual kinship with with his work…his poetry, as well as his short stories. So I can’t deny the Howard influence, nor would I want to neither can I deny the Tolkien influence–he so vital to fantasy itself. In comics, Kirby is the King. In fantasy, it’s Tolkien.
SFFWRTCHT: How did you get your start as a writer?
JRF: My start? Writing short stories in college, trying to get them into WEIRD TALES mag. It became my goal as a writer for 15 years. I got regular rejection letters (and writing lessons) from Darrell Schweitzer–he always told me how to better my stuff. It took 15 years, but I finally sold him a story for WT–”The Persecution of Artifice the Quill”–appeared in WT #340.
SFFWRTCHT: Which I’ll bet was a really good feeling. Did you study writing in college? How did you learn your craft?
JRF: I was elated! I had figured out how to Tell a Story. In college, I studied creative writing as my “Area of Concentration”–but it was not my major. That was journalism. Creative writing is a LOT more fun! I wrote my first stories in a college writing class (my first Weird tales rejections). I feel every single thing I write makes me a better writer. I live by that.
SFFWRTCHT: Given the influences from pulp i.e. Howard, CAS, and other influences, what sensibilities do you tend to bring to your writing which many modern writers and audiences may not?
JRF: Good question! Well, my influences definitely go well beyond pulp fiction (although that’s at the core of my influences). I also have an abiding love of Shakespeare and Poe, a fascination with crime-noir cinema (and cinema in general), and my study of graphic storytelling has also influenced my way of setting and staging scenes–I’m a very visual thinker. However, the in-depth character focus is something you don’t get from pulp fiction, usually, so it’s important to me to bring my characters to life in as three-dimensional a way as possible. And I also feel that you don’t need scene after scene of characters sitting around talking (i.e. whining) in order to build characterization. EVERYTHING a character does, says, feels….it’s all grist for the characterization mill. I try to bring alive as much characterization as possible without slowing down the movement of the story/novel. Reading authors from outside the SFF genre is a great way to study characterization: Salinger, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Remarque, the aforementioned Shakespeare, etc. I’m not sure what I bring that modern writers don’t–I can’t see my own work objectively enough to know this. But I like to think I combine world-building with strong characterization and a rollicking pace.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you define epic fantasy and what makes a good fantasy story or novel?
JRF: Well, people love to argue about what is or isn’t “epic” fantasy. In my book, if it’s an adventure with a grand scope that involves the fate of nations, battling armies, and some element of magic or sorcery, it’s probably Epic Fantasy. Usually it must also take place in a “secondary world,” or a world other than ours…although it’s possible to have an Epic Fantasy that takes place in “our” world in the ancient past or the far future. With fantasy anything’s possible, so it’s the “epic” part that matters. Epic, as in, a really HUGE story.
SFFWRTCHT: What are some of your favorite fantasy books? And some favorite authors?
JRF: Tanith Lee’s TALES FROM THE FLAT EARTH; Clark Ashton Smith’s TALES OF ZOTHIQUE; Lord Dunsany’s THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER; Howard’s HOUR OF THE DRAGON; R. Scott Bakker’s THE PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy; Tolkien’s SILMARILLION; E. R. Eddison’s THE WORM OUROBOROS; Silverberg’s NIGHTWINGS; Darrell Schweitzer’s MASK OF THE SORCERER; A. A. Attanasio’s THE DRAGON AND THE UNICORN; William Gibson’s SPRAWL and BRIDGE trilogies; Tom Ligotti’s SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER; Michael Moorcock’s ELRIC series (STORMBRINGER is my fave); George R. R. Martin’s SONG OF ICE AND FIRE; Brian McNaughton’s THRONE OF BONES (a modern classic); John Brunner’s THE TRAVELER IN BLACK; Stephen R. Donaldson’s THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT; Patricia McKillips THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD; more, lots more…
SFFWRTCHT: Where’d the idea for Seven Princes come from?
JRF: It came from an earlier idea called CHILD OF THUNDER, which was the story of Vod the Giant-King and how he grew up raised by humans then became master of giants; it didn’t quite work as a novel, so it became the backstory for SEVEN PRINCES, which deals in large part with Vod’s heirs.
SFFWRTCHT: So you created this world via the Vod story. Did you have to do much world building then for Seven Princes?
JRF: Yes. I built most of the world when I was writing CHILD OF THUNDER. I continued developing it when I began SEVEN PRINCES. It continues to evolve with SEVEN KINGS and SEVEN SORCERERS. I took a backstory from Vod’s tale, but I moved it forward twenty or so years into the future…
SFFWRTCHT: In the book, magic is described as abilities that people have but have forgotten. Tell us a little about the magic system please.
JRF: Yes, but it goes much deeper than that. Sorcerers in this world are generally born into their power; so are their descendants—who may live in ignorance of the power they are heir to. While all living things are capable of altering reality (which is usually called “sorcery”), most of them are far too enmeshed in the physical world—in the patterns that birthed them—to embrace this ultimate power. In a way, the magic in this particular universe is a lot like the Creative Consciousness that Chopra and other spiritualists speak of….I don’t want to say much more about it for fear of spoilers…the series explores the very depths and heights of sorcery and that’s part of the journey’s appeal.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you base your world on particular influences from other fantasies or the real world?
JRF: Probably a blend, but based in the realities of our earthly ancient cultures: Greek city-states meets Roman metropolitics meets Middle-Eastern exoticism. History is the best thing to study when it comes to world-building.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you outline or pants it? How much planning do you do before you write i.e. did you plan the whole series first?
JRF: I do a LOT of planning. Most of it takes place in my head…my subconscious as well as conscious mind. I don’t do tight outlines, but I have a general idea of where I want to go. The characters lead me there…sometimes they take detours…sometimes specific visions will drive me…I see “tentpoles” or places I have to reach…and I never know quite how I’m going to get there until I listen to the characters involved…eventually I start writing.
SFFWRTCHT: How much and what type of research do you typically do before writing or as you write?
JRF: Depends on what I’m writing about. If I’m doing something historical (which I’m doing more and more these days), I do enough research to answer my burning questions then go for it. For example, I did a lot of research on the Comanche tribes and the great Horse Explosion of the late 1700s…the history that lead to the birth of the horse-clan culture of the North American plains tribes. (This wasn’t for The Books of the Shaper, but another project with a Native American protagonist.) When I wrote a story about Irish immigrants coming to Kentucky in that same era, I did a lot of research on what it was like for the Kentuckiana settlers, coming over the Cumberland Gap and claiming a section of savage wilderness as their new home. In some way, a writer is always researching…because the basic inspiration for fiction is life itself.
SFFWRTCHT: How long did Seven Princes take you to write?
JRF: Depends on how you look at it. If you include the story in its formative stages…the aborted first draft, as it were, it took about three to five years. But as for the actual SP manuscript, I decided to let it take as long as it needed to take—no rushing. As I said, I do a lot of the “idea work” in my head—often taking notes as I go—so when I write I “dive in” and go full-speed.
SFFWRTCHT: What role has your editor played in shaping the stories?
JRF: Editors give good advice, and they have an objective point of view that writers really need to hear sometimes. I wrote SEVEN PRINCES well before I had an editor for it, and when Orbit bought it my editor only asked for a couple of minor changes.
SFFWRTCHT: When can we expect to see book 2?
JRF: January 2013 – with another great Rich Anderson cover!
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about your path to agent/publisher?
JRF: It took me three years to find an agent. (So to all the struggling writers out there: Stick with it. Patience is your sorcery.) Once I was lucky enough to land one (with some help from my pal Howard Andrew Jones, who recommended me to his), it took about 11 months to settle on a publisher for SEVEN PRINCES. FYI: My agent is the great Bob Mecoy.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like? Planned time? Grab it when you can?
JRF: I have a writing “season”—it’s summer, when I’m not teaching. It also peaks during the spring when I get a wee vacation. I write all year round, but the summertime is when I get the bulk of my projects finished.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you use any special software or music playlist?
JRF: I only use Microsoft Word. I definitely have playlists when I write—sometimes I’ll create playlists for specific characters. The unofficial soundtrack for SEVEN PRINCES could very well be The Sword’s “Age of Winters” album, if not Monster Magnet’s “Superjudge”.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you deal with writer’s block?
JRF: I accept it as part of the writing process. Ideas are born, gestate, and eventually “bloom”—but only when they are ready. Like plants, the more attention you give them, the more they grow. Also, meditation is a key to deep creativity.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best writing advice you have to offer new writers who ask?
JRF: Just keep writing. If you’re really a writer, there’s nothing else you can do. Write what you believe in…conquer your own mountains…write the best stories you can and get them out there where people can dig your mojo. Build a suit of armor from your accumulated rejection slips and wear it into battle. Kill that dragon.
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
JRF: SEVEN KINGS is coming next January. The PRIMORDIA ultimate hardcover collection hits comic stores in March. (PRIMORDIA can be read in its entirety at www.comixology.com if you don’t want to wait.) I have short stories that will be showing up here and there…and I’m currently working on the Third Book of the Shaper, SEVEN SORCERERS.
SFFWRTCHT: What do you see at the cornerstone of your storytelling: plot, character or world building? Or something else?
JRF: Character, definitely. But I’m a compulsive world-builder…
Thanks to everybody who joined the chat tonight! PEACE!