Well, folks, we’ve survived the first month and a bit of 2017 – barely, some might say. I’m of the mind not to let various disruptions get you down or mess with the writing mojo, which is partly why I’m really glad to be sharing this interview with my fellow rational human being and generally chill writer, Evan May. Below we discuss his first novel, The King in Darkness, which I reviewed a few posts back, as well as the fantasy genre, the writing craft, and Vladivostok (no joke). Here’s a short bio for Evan, followed by the interview:
Evan May is a freelance writer and history professor who lives in Ottawa, Canada. Evan studied Creative Writing at the University of Windsor before moving on to study medieval history, concentrating on scamps and troublemakers in 15th century York and London. He has recently been pleased to return to writing down some of the strange things that live in his head. When not writing or teaching, Evan enjoys distance running and tending to the whims of two lazy cats.
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So I’ve been describing The King in Darkness to friends as very subtle fantasy — do you consider it more literary or spec fic?
First, thank you — I’m very pleased to have it described that way. I guess what I hope it is more than anything is a good story, but that’s dodging the question. There are unquestionably fantastic elements to it so I would have trouble not calling it a fantasy story. I think there are writers in SFF who create prose that stacks up perfectly well against books that get called ‘literary’ so I will claim the spec fic label with pride.
So would you say the fantastic elements of Darkness are open to interpretation, since a lot of what happens is unclear and based entirely on your narrator Adam’s perception? (Which was another of the interesting aspects of the novel, for me)
Oh yes. I love the idea of the reader getting to decide for themselves about some elements of the story, so there are parts that are deliberately ambiguous or at least have room for interpretation baked in. I always like it when I get to engage my imagination when I’m reading a story and come up with some of my own answers, so I guess I wrote a story that might ask that of readers myself. I often see having every detail nailed down and spelled out described as a virtue in writing, but there are examples of great stories where the audience gets to decide important points. Is Hamlet actually crazy, or is it all an act? Every person decides that for themselves, and that decision makes the play different and I think that’s great.
I say Hamlet’s crazy (watch the version with David Tennant, and you’ll see I’m right). I’m also a huge fan of ambiguity and unanswered questions. Do you find you incorporate that a lot in your writing, or is it unique (so far) to this novel?
Yeah I do — I took a long break from writing fiction while I was doing my Ph.D. and when I finished the first thing I wrote was a short story that could be about slipping into a parallel universe, or could just be about someone losing their mind. I enjoy writing stories with unanswered questions and I like to hope people enjoy reading them.
Any plans to revisit this world in a sequel? I found I wanted to no more about the fate of certain characters, like Alex and Professor Marchale (I was sure something nefarious had happened to the professor).
Yes! I have ideas for several more stories. The next one, ‘Bonhomme Sept-Heures‘, has just been published, although Alex and the Professor don’t have quite as prominent roles in it, I will get back to them. I have a lot of affection for both characters and Marchale is very fun to write.
Awesome! Marchale particularly was a favorite for me — he reminded me of a couple professors I used to know. I found a lot of the characters were particularly vivid. Were any of them inspired by real people?
Thank you — whenever I write characters they become very real to me, so it’s good to hear that comes across in the book. There isn’t a one-to-one inspiration of any of the characters, but a lot of them have bits and pieces of people I have known. Marchale in particular is kind of a composite of several teachers and professors I have known. I suppose that’s one of the things writers are known for, isn’t it – constantly plundering the world around us for story fodder.
Speaking of plundering around us, another thing I really liked was reading a novel set in Ottawa. I’ve actually steered away from it in my writing because we’re such a politics-heavy city. Any particular reasons why you set your novel here, and were there any challenges with having Ottawa as your setting?
From previous writing experiences, one thing I knew going in was that if I was going to set a story in a city, I needed to know that city pretty well to have it feel genuine. (Ask me about Vladivostok sometime.) So that gave me a relatively limited menu of cities to choose from. I decided to go with Ottawa since I was living here and getting what I thought were interesting little bits and pieces of urban life to add to the story and it would be most straightforward to do that for the city they actually came from. As the story came together, I ended up really liking Ottawa as a setting because as a smaller city with a reputation for being quiet, it’s not the first place you would expect to find some kind of supernatural threat. I think it’s actually scarier or more disturbing to encounter dangers and threats in places we think are safe, so I hope that works in the story’s favour, even if I can’t say that was the plan from the beginning.
You know this means I have to ask you about Vladivostok, right?
Hahaha. Okay, well when I was in a Creative Writing program in university I was trying very hard to be William Gibson, at least in terms of writing. It seemed to me at the time that Gibson stories usually had these unusual locations and so I wrote this thing with the opening scenes in Vladivostok, which seemed suitably Gibson-y to me. Of course the first thing the professor said, in the first session where we were getting feedback on our work, was ‘Vladivostok is nothing like that,’ and I immediately looked around for a convenient hole to sink into. Because of course the man had actually been to Vladivostok.
So I’ve remembered that in terms of picking settings that I can do properly, but I think the most important thing I learned from that course was that trying to use Gibson’s voice was a terrible idea. I’m not that guy, I don’t have those experiences and I don’t have those ideas. So as much as there are lots of writers whose work I admire a ton and whose talent I’m amazed by (Gibson still being one of them) I figured out that I need to tell my own stories my own way. Which don’t need to be set in Vladivostok.
Ha! I’d say that’s an awesome lesson to end on. Final question: what are you working on right now, and anything you’d like to plug (besides Bonhomme Sept-Heures)?
Well, I am kicking around some ideas for a third book to follow on after Bonhomme Sept-Heures, but right now I’m most actively working on a Victorian spy/horror story. It started out as a joke on Facebook and now it’s turned into a project I’m actually quite excited about. Sometimes ideas really come out of left field and you just have to run with them.
(Thanks for doing this, man — it’s been fun!)
No worries! It’s been my pleasure!
An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon has been published in On Spec, Third Flatiron Anthologies, and elsewhere. His latest short story, “Blaze-of-Glory Shoes,” is now available in The 2017 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide. Learn more at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @B_Crilly