Interview with Author Justin Travis Call

interview
Justin Travis Call "...You Need to Give the Reader Opportunities to Pause..."

The writer explains how his novel developed over a period of years after a lifetime love of reading and how, as an author, you balance making demands on a reader while simultaneously taking care of them

To read this day and age, you have a plethora of choices. Truly as readers, we live in the golden age of fantasy. Never before has the world of writing been as accessible and wide-reaching as it is now. With that comes separating the wheat from the chaff for yourself. You need to find what motivates and inspires you as a reader and latch on to that. I love a good quest novel, or a well-written coming of age adult fantasy, a la The Belgarion or The Kingkiller’s Chronicles. The difficulty with this type of story is that a writer needs to have the ability to skirt the line of juvenile themes while not being a juvenile novel. Enter Justin Travis Call’s new book, Master of Sorrows. The first novel of the tetralogy, The Silent Gods. Recently, I talked in-depth about the brilliance of this novel, and how it does exactly what I am looking for as a reader. How it is engaging, robust, heartbreaking, and most importantly presents themes for Annev (the main protagonist) in a way that allows him to grow as a character in a review for Grimdark Magazine. You can find my review here. However, I have an excellent opportunity to interview the author himself. 

For the uninitiated, could you tell me a little about Master of Sorrows?

Master of Sorrows is a dark epic fantasy that follows the traditional tropes of the epic fantasy bildungsroman, but which turns most of those tropes on their head. Instead of being about the hero fated to save the world, for example, it is the origin story for the series’ Dark Lord … though you won’t see much darkness in this first book (at least not on behalf of its protagonist). The novel itself follows the story of Annev de Breth, an adolescent attending a secret academy that trains its students to steal magic artifacts. It’s a sort of anti-magic school story (though there is still plenty of magic to be had there), and its students are mostly taught skills in martial arts, thievery, and magical identification. Students who excel at those skills and pass the right tests are allowed to become Avatars of Judgment – warrior-thieves sent on missions on behalf of the Academy. Those that fail their tests must remain in the village and serve as stewards to their betters; they also aren’t allowed to get married, which is particularly irksome for Annev since he’s become infatuated with the headmaster’s only daughter.

The twist, though, is that the academy and the surrounding village are prejudiced against people with magic and people with deformities – and Annev has both, which makes him twice cursed. Hiding those particular qualities while simultaneously excelling at the academy is both paradoxical and improbable … yet Annev endures. How and why, I cannot say without revealing too much of the book, but you’ll see a lot of familiar tropes amidst an unfamiliar setting, including a churlish old wizard, several school competitions, an enchanted forest, magic wands and other artifacts, plus some witches, demons, and shadow assassins mixed in for good measure. If I’ve done my job right, it should feel both classic and modern, nostalgic yet fresh. It also has elements of Grimdark, which has been very popular in recent years, but it borrows those grittier themes without abandoning the hopeful outlook that is often associated with traditional epic fantasy.

One of the great strengths of Master of Sorrows is character development and backstory. Could you tell me how you developed the backstory for Sodar? Is he based at all on a real person?

I knew very early on that I wanted to include the trope of a wise old wizard guiding my protagonist, but putting Sodar and Annev in a village full of people that hate magic presented some interesting challenges. That affected some of his personality and backstory (his preference to be secretive, for example), but much of the rest was shaped around events that I had already plotted for the series, including its history and mythology. Having someone that knew Annev’s family history was essential, as was his proficiency in magic and religion, but I had to strike the right balance between eccentric scholar, ascetic monk, devout priest, loving guardian, stoic warrior, and churlish wizard. Pulling all those pieces together wasn’t that hard in retrospect, but doing it so that he felt both classic and fresh was a little tricky. He’s simultaneously exactly like all the old wizard stereotypes you see in fantasy novels (Belgarath, Gandalf, Allanon, Merlin) … but he’s also different. More flawed in some ways, weaker in terms of magic, too, but he’s got the characteristic spark that makes all wizards seem both dangerous and all-knowing. He’s also a bit mischievous (like Belgarath) but without being overly stern.
“Hiding those particular qualities while simultaneously excelling at the academy is both paradoxical and improbable … yet Annev endures.”
As for whether he is based on a real person, I can’t rightly say except that his banter with Annev is largely reflective of my own banter with both my father and my oldest son. We have a good relationship, but it inevitably slides into a mentor/student conversation once we get going on a topic we feel passionate about – and I tried to instill that same sort of “absent-minded professor” qualities into Sodar’s character.

I have seen Master of Sorrows compared with Name of the Wind, in terms of quality of writing and story creation, which is high praise indeed. Are you a fan of Name of the Wind, and has any of Rothfuss's writing influenced you as a writer?

I still get a thrill every time I see people make that comparison, though it’s difficult for me to justify it at times. Rothfuss uses much more poetic language than I do (I lean more towards the Sanderson school of thought there and just try to convey the story as precisely and clearly as possible without drawing attention to myself as the narrator/author) – but I love Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles and I delight in the comparison nonetheless. I’ve thought about it quite a bit, though, and I think the two biggest reasons people make that comparison is because of our world-building and protagonist’s motives. For both Rothfuss and myself, we’ve spent decades building up the lore and mythology of our worlds, so when we tell our stories you know you’re in the hands of an author who is intimately familiar with the world he’s describing. You feel grounded in ways that other novels can’t achieve because they can only hint at things they don’t know, while Rothfuss and I are hinting at the iceberg beneath the ocean’s surface. We know its depths and we know (most of) its contents, and we’re eager to get that onto the page as fast possible. At the same time, though, we know a good story takes a while to tell well, and we don’t mind spinning a long yarn to get there (especially if the payoff is good). So we’ve both go that slow burn quality going for us. We show the world and the protagonist’s character through interactions with people, places, and events and we try to let the story speak for itself. Some people really love that style of storytelling (I do, which is why I love Name of the Wind), but other readers will find that style too slow for their personal tastes. That’s perfectly fine, but I hope the readers who do appreciate that style find their way to our books because they really are about savoring the epic fantasy experience. Less about the destination and more about the journey.
A good example of all that is Kvothe’s three missions:
(1) his search for the Chandrian,
(2) his quest for Denna, and
(3) his present-day self needing to find some kind of redemption that will restore order to a messed up world.
We don’t get ANY of those things in Books 1 or 2 of the Kingkiller Chronicles … but we get closer to their resolution and Rothfuss lovingly sweeps his reader along toward each of those ultimate goals. As frustrating as that may be to some readers, it’s really an experience you get to savor. Very bittersweet.
My goals with Annev are no different. I’ve told readers from the very beginning that he’s on the path to becoming this world’s Dark Lord, but I’m not going to give them that resolution till the end of the tetralogy (afterwhich, I’ve got two more distinct character arcs planned for Annev). There’s also some supernatural forces that are trying to capture or destroy him, plus the odd prophecy or two about him being both a savior and a destroyer. Throw in a bunch of fantasy tropes that I plan to tease and twist (warring gods and civilizations, wizards and thieves and political intrigue, etc.), and you’ve got a lot of expectations to play with: (1) Annev becomes the Dark Lord, but (2) Annev is probably still the hero of the series (that’s why he’s the protagonist, right?) – and (3) the Silence of the Gods is probably going to end (that’s why the series is called The Silent Gods). Few people understand exactly what that means or what it will entail, but it involves a lot of conflict and a lot of intrigue and Annev is at the center of all of it.
I think there are also three other expectations readers have while reading Master of Sorrows specifically … but since I subvert some of those expectations, I won’t spoil them by naming them here.

How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?

One thing I was very cognizant of during my first book was getting the beats of my story right so that (a) readers didn’t get too much of an infodump at any one time, and (b) they weren’t breathlessly racing towards the end of the novel without ever getting a chance to pause and reflect on what had just happened. My first draft was not very kind to readers in that respect (the scriptural epigraphs that introduce Parts 1-3 of my book were all served in one fat chapter at the beginning of the book, which made it really hard for casual readers to get to the main story). I broke that up pretty early in the revision process, which made the book much more digestible, but then I tried to apply that same methodology to the action in the book. I wanted things to start off relatively slow (let people become familiar with the world and the main character), but I also wanted there to be some early stakes and some fun action chapters (hence the stealth test in the Academy’s nave, the encounters with Fyn and his fellow bullies, and the multiple chapters covering the action during the Test of Judgment). You can’t just string scenes like that together one after the other, though, so you need to give the reader opportunities to pause and contemplate the wider world and the main character’s motives. That’s especially important when the bulk of the book’s action takes place over the course of three or four days.
“At the same time, though, we know a good story takes a while to tell well, and we don’t mind spinning a long yarn to get there (especially if the payoff is good). So we’ve both go that slow burn quality going for us. We show the world and the protagonist’s character through interactions with people, places, and events and we try to let the story speak for itself.”
It pays off, though. Once the reader has put in their page counts, the scenes speed up and the action gets more intense until they are literally jumping from one conflict to the next and everything seems to be spiralling more and more out of control. It’s ramps up fast and has an exciting climax that seems to really resonate with readers (even the critical ones) – and that’s what I wanted. That was my goal when I set out to write Master of Sorrows, and I think I achieved that. A slow burn at the beginning followed by a faster thriller-paced ending. I needed to do that to show readers that there’s a big payoff for sticking with the slower pace at the start of the novel – and it continues to pay dividends in Book 2, especially regarding the stories of Kenton and Myjun.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

I didn’t really know many (any?) other authors before I got published, though that’s slowly beginning to change as I attend more conventions and meet other authors published by Gollancz (in the UK) and Blackstone (in the US). I feel I’ve become good friends with Christopher Ruocchio, who writes science-fiction (The Sun Eater series) and whose books follow a similar hero-becoming-the-dark-lord trope. In fact, his writing style is even more like Rothfuss because it has the same poetry you see in Pat’s own writing, but lent towards a darker sci-fi flavor. I suppose I’m friends with Ed McDonald as well (who wrote the Raven’s Mark Trilogy), but I can’t say I know him all that well (nor Christopher, for that matter). Professional friends, I guess, and not much more than that since they Christopher lives on the East Coast and Ed lives in London. I’ve learned from them both, though, since they each write on the periphery of what I am doing. It’s been educative to see another writer (Christopher) approach the Dark Lord as Hero trope, for example, especially in a space opera setting. There’s also some elements of Grimdark in my series (albeit with strong threads of hope instead of the more typical nihilism you see in other Grimdark series), and Ed achieved a similar vibe in his Raven’s Mark trilogy (very hopeful; in fact, it’s more of a love story if you think of it the right way). It was still a proper epic fantasy, though – and a flintlock fantasy, and a grimdark fantasy – and seeing how he managed to blend all of those things together was really gratifying, particularly since Ed doesn’t outline his books the way Christopher and I do (which is something that is still difficult for me to wrap my head around). I plan to do a little less outlining for my third book just to see if that pantsing agrees with me … but I’ve also done a ton of worldbuilding and outlining before I began writing this series, so most of the scenes are still fixed in my mind. Not outlining the details of those scenes, though (or their order) will be interesting. Might not be able to keep it up since I’m a big planner/architect when it comes to storybuilding … but I think I might be able to pull it off. Seeing Ed do that with his own books (and at a blistering pace) is very encouraging.
Beyond Ed and Christopher, I suppose I consider Brandon Sanderson a friend, though I doubt he knows me from Adam. I’ve met him at a few conferences and book signings, but always as an aspiring author (never a published one). Brandon and I also share the same UK editor (Gillian Redfearn at Gollancz), though I understand he does most of his editorial revisions with his US editor (Moshe Feder at Tor Books). We are also of the same faith (Latter-day Saints) and we share a lot of the same opinions about writing, especially when it comes to worldbuilding and magic systems. So we’re similar in many things, but we aren’t friends in the traditional sense. Having said that, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Brandon’s Writing Excuses podcast, and I’ve watched all of his online writing lectures (given while teaching fantasy writing at BYU). So I’ve learned from his books, his interviews, and his actual lessons to students – and I’m sure that’s improved my own writing. Because of this, it sometimes feels like I’m already good friends with Brandon … but I expect many of his fans feel the same way. Haha.

Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Yes.

What is your favorite childhood book?

I suppose that depends on what you define as my childhood! When I was really young (I’m talking just barely able to read), it was The Monster at the End of This Book, which is one of those old Golden Books featuring Grover from Sesame Street. I remember sitting in my grandma’s house and flipping between those pages, imagining the scenes playing out in real life. Grover talks to the reader (breaking the fourth wall and telling a lot of the story in a combined 1st and 2nd person narrative), and I found all of these non-traditional storytelling techniques really compelling. 
When I was a bit older (but still not ready to transition to books without pictures), I became a huge fan of the comic treasury books at my local library: Garfield, Dilbert, and especially Calvin & Hobbes. From there I transitioned to Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books (CYOA), which had the happy accident of teaching me a lot about storytelling (particularly since I read through all the threads of my CYOA books until I’d experienced all of the endings). I also started reading Encyclopedia Brown and a lot of the Bruce Coville books (My Teacher is an Alien, The Monster’s Ring, etc), plus many books by Chris Heimerdinger, such as Eddie Fantastic and the Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites series. It wasn’t till I was about fourteen that I discovered proper epic fantasy, though, and that came in the form of the Tamuli trilogy by David Eddings (which I still love to this day). I didn’t read many middle grade chapter books and I wasn’t introduced to Lord of the Rings until I was much older. Harry Potter came out when I was in my teens and was directed at kids a little younger than me, so it didn’t capture me the same way it had my younger sister (though I still read and enjoyed the series). 
David Eddings’ Belgarath the Sorcerer was probably my favorite book in my teens (and still remains one of my favorites to this day), and I’ll sometimes reread that one independent of the rest of the series just because it is satisfying on its own merits. It plays with the god and prophecy themes quite a bit since it focuses on Belgarath’s origin story and the events that led up to Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon series. It’s also a bit strange in that it doesn’t follow the traditional epic fantasy plot since it’s more about explaining and exploring events that were hinted at in the larger series but which weren’t monumental enough on their own to warrant an entire book (or perhaps they were, but Eddings found a way to condense it all into one epic novel). Reading it is like getting one saga of fantasy served up to you in a single serving, and it struck a chord with me in a way that other books had not. It taught me a lot about worldbuilding, and I’ve tried to carry over those lessons as much as I am able into my own series.

How do you select the names of your characters?

Early in my outlining I picked a handful of traits that described a certain character and then translated those traits into Irish-Gaelic. Then I took it a step further and bastardized most of the names so that they’d be phonetically pronounceable for someone who spoke modern English. I tried to pick names (or versions of names) that echoed actual names in modern English so that they weren’t wholly foreign but were still properly fantastic and which echoed the Irish-Gaelic flavors I had woven throughout the novel.
Now that the foundation for the series has been laid, I don’t do that as much anymore. There’s enough foreign flavoring that I don’t want to alienate readers too much, so I approach things from the opposite direction: I start with an English name and I find a way to make it a little less modern. I’m familiar enough with Old and Middle English that I know how to properly morph such things, so I try to make it all feel authentic. I also have a cheatsheet of sorts. There’s a post I made on Facebook a few years ago where I asked if anyone wanted to lend me their name for inspiration for a character in a fantasy (with the caveat that it might be used for a minor character or even a truly despicable villain). Lots of friends and family volunteered their names, and I regularly pull from that list when I’m looking for the name of a barmaid or ship captain, a historical figure or a bandit. I still usually change the names a bit so they match the setting of my books, but it’s more fun to include the names of people I know (especially for the people whose names I use), and sometimes those minor characters become major ones. So I guess I do a mix of both methods.

Finally, are there any juicy tidbits you can share about Annev in the next book? I am dying to know.

About Annev, eh? Not about Fyn or Myjun or Kenton? Hmm.
I can tell you that Annev and his companions are going to learn a lot more about how magic works in their world. Sodar taught Annev a great deal, but his perspective was also uniquely skewed – just a sliver of the wider magic system. Now Annev will be exposed to several different schools of magic and will learn a lot more about how his own magic works. He’s also hoping to remove a certain cursed artifact that has fused to his body and he gets help from Sodar’s colleague, Reeve, in exchange for helping the man search for traitors amidst the Order of the Dionachs Tobar. You’ll see more of Oyru (the Shadow Reborn) and meet two more members of the Siänar. I won’t say much more about that except that Annev will be making more choices that move him along the spectrum from Hero-to-Villain (though you won’t see him go full Dark Lord for some time yet).
The other supporting characters have their own journeys which I am equally excited about, though. You’ll see more of Sodja Rocas (who briefly appeared in the third act of Book 1) as well as several chapters set in the capital city of Luqura, the Shadowrealm, and religious capital of Quiri. You’ll even see some old characters from Book 1 whom you thought were long gone … but I won’t say more than that. Suffice it to say, this was one of the harder books to write for the series since it requires introducing and balancing new POVs while also furthering the larger narrative involving Annev and his journey as a protagonist. Master of Sorrows was largely about establishing the tone of the story and making it clear that, as an active protagonist, Annev is largely uncertain of his place in the world. Master Artificer carries that theme forward as Annev searches for where he fits into the larger world narrative. As with MoS, though, Annev is going to be disappointed by the choices offered to him, and when he tries to make the best of it, it doesn’t go as well as he had hoped. Book 2 also ends with Annev making certain choices that send him down a darker path, and Book 3 carries that narrative forward until Annev discovers precisely where he does fit in (you can probably guess where that one’s headed, but I guarantee you won’t predict the path his journey will take)

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