I'm very pleased that my first interview for the blog is with Ken Scholes. I chose Ken for my very first You Should Be Reading , both for the caliber of his fiction and my experiences interacting with him as a fan, which predate this blog by a number of years. Ken has been doing really interesting things in the genre for years and sadly, at least in my area, doesn't get the attention he so richly deserves. Ken was gracious enough to commit to an interview during my very first week writing this blog. Deadlines, revisions, children and vacations have slowed the pace a bit, but we've managed to get the planets aligned properly and the day is finally here. My questions and Ken's thorough and revealing answers are posted below.
52 Reviews: The Psalms of Isaak is something decidedly different than most epic fantasy. In fact, it seems inaccurate to label at as fantasy at all. Even the opening sequences of Lamentation hint that this world is far more than the stereotypical fantasy setting it may seem to be. I've noticed that as the series progresses we see more and more science fiction creeping in to the story, not just as window dressing, but as a starring role in the story. I liken it to being something of a mirror to the way the use and prevalence of magic rises in George R. R, Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Was that your plan from the beginning or did this element of the story grow in the telling?
Ken Scholes:The Psalms of Isaak was initially imagined as a series of four interconnected short stories but the notion that it was actually SF buried in Fantasy has always been there – the robot is a dead-giveaway, I’m told. I drew a lot from Clarke’s famous quote about any sufficiently advanced technology would appear as magic to a less advanced society.
That said, some of it has surprised me as I’ve “discovered” it in the writing process. Winters and Neb’s story arc around the Home-Seeker’s Dream was something that showed up in Lamentation to surprise me – aspects of that story were already taking shape in another project I was contemplating, The 100th Tale of Felip Carnelyin: The Ship that Sailed the Moon. I was surprised when that showed up in the story and then, in between writing Canticle and Lamentation, I fleshed out the idea a bit more in my novelette, “A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon.” Of course, I’ve incorporated Carnelyin into my Psalms of Isaak mythos and now see a trilogy shaping up around that 100th tale and how it changes their world.
52 Reviews: Your background as a former minister is an obvious influence on the world of the Named Lands. Does the journey of the Androfrancine Order mirror your own spiritual path?
Ken Scholes: In some ways, surely. My Androfrancines, of course, are secular humanists who’ve capitalized on the trappings of religion in their effort to keep humanity alive. The series explores that notion and how far they’re willing to go to protect themselves and their mission. Then it introduces a more metaphysical variety of faith (via the Y’Zirites and the Marshfolk) to that mix. My own journey through fundamentalist and ecumenical Christianity to eventually reach a rational worldview free of religion is certainly reflected in the series. More than anything, I’ve wanted to create a sandbox where I can play with the ideas I’ve had along my own path. I also think that my background is an influence in that I have a degree in history in addition to having been a minister – in telling the Psalms of Isaak, I’ve wanted to tell the equivalent of an otherworldly biblical epic but from the framework of the supernatural elements being technology so far beyond our reach that it would feel like fantasy to those in the midst of the tale. And all of my time immersed in religious texts and mythology, I think, both as a believer and as a non-believer of those texts and myths, has helped me (I hope) bring out that flavor.
52 Reviews: Part of what makes your character's so believable is because of the obvious effect your real life experiences seem to have shaped their stories. Your spiritual journey from a member of the clergy to choosing a different path of spirituality and faith seem to be a large influence on both the character of Petronus and the shape of his story. I suspect that some parts of your childhood may have given Neb a similar dose of reality as well. Are there other less obvious parts of the author hiding behind our favorite characters?
Ken Scholes: I do dig a lot of the raw material for my characters out of my own psyche and experiences. Petronus’s path is certainly a lot like my own, though I would say at this point, after spending most of my life on a spiritual, faith-based path I’m on one now that is rooted in a rational, secular worldview. And yes, there are definitely aspects of my Unfortunate Trailer Boy Childhood that show up, not just in Neb but in Rudolfo as well. SPOILER ALERT: For instance, in Lamentation, Rudolfo names the metal man he finds after a brother we learn (later) died when he was small. My brother’s death when I was four years old was one of those major life-shaping events. To some degree, all of the characters are me.
And yet others are re-imaginings of friends and family. Gregoric is my pal John Pitts. Renard is my childhood friend Robert. Jin Li Tam is my wife, Jen, and her friend and one-time wetnurse to Lord Jakob – Lynnae – is our friend Aimee. Petronus is based on my friend Jerry in addition to a bit of myself. Esarov the Democrat is based on Jay Lake. In some instances, I put people in the story as a gift to them or as a way of honoring them and it’s very intentional. Other times, I see it in hindsight. Of course, they’re all fictionalized thoroughly before I’m done with them. And I never write people into my books that I’m at odds with.
And Rudolfo is all me. Especially his hedonism and charm. Not so much his ruthlessness. Or his skill with the knives.
52 Reviews: It's interesting that the titular character of the series, the mechanoservitor Isaak, is the only person in the main cast that doesn't have any point of view chapters. Why did you choose to make such a central character the most removed from the narrative in a direct sense?
Ken Scholes: It was definitely a conscious choice to not give him a POV. I wanted our understanding of him to be derived entirely from his interactions with the humans in his life and to allow the inner workings of his mind to be cut off from us. I also wanted him to have that otherworldly quality – that sense of being set apart -- from the other players in the story. And as Isaak grows and develops, I’m discovering that this was a good call on my part because now, in the fourth volume, he is privy to much information that would make him tricky as an actual POV character because I’d have to conceal his knowledge from the readers.
52 Reviews: The idea of a mechanical man becoming human is a theme in countless stories including Pinocchio and the Wizard of Oz. But for Isaak, humanity seems to be more of an unintentional side-effect that brings the mechoservitor pain. What led you to choose this alternative take on the classic quest for humanity?
Ken Scholes: I was influenced a great deal, as a child, by the metal men of my youth. Rex in Del Rey’s Runaway Robot, Baum’s Tin Woodman, Pinocchio, C3P0, Twiki. And that notion of a robot wishing they were human has been done a lot. This is actually not the first time I’ve played with the idea of a mechanical creature being forced to become more due to disaster and trauma – one of my earliest short stories in the world, “Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk,” deals with this very notion.
I can see why writers in the past might want to create mechanical beings who aspire to be like their creators – and usually it’s dressed up as a noble endeavor. But with Isaak, I saw a metal man who aspired for nothing other than to be what he was designed to be, then forced to embrace a growing sense of his own humanity as a result of being betrayed and transformed by that betrayal…by humans. And I wanted to explore how that would play itself out among his metal tribe along with those who found him, those who built and scripted him, and later, in his relationship with the friends and enemies he makes along the way.
52 Reviews: Based on comments you've made in previous interviews, you seem to fall largely in the camp of discovery writers. Were there times when the plot or characters of the novel chose to drive the narrative to an unexpected place? Which of these trips down the rabbit holes do you think improved the story the most?
Ken Scholes: I do tend to be a discovery writer though I’ve also outlined and seem to just grab hold of whatever tool I need in the moment that I need it. I’ll do less discovery as I write Hymn but that may be because it’s the last book and I’m feeling very protective of it. I’m planning to sit down with the first four books to read them carefully with a notebook nearby. Then, I’ll create a big picture outline based on a three act structure – both of the volume itself and of the series – to make sure I hit the places I want to hit.
As a discovery writer, I’m often surprised where my redneck muse (Leroy) takes me. There have been some cool discoveries – I like the term rabbit holes – that I think strengthened the book. Neb and Winters “home-seeking” storyline is a good example. When I started Lamentation I was doing some things with tropes in the epic fantasy genre – the dashing prince, the dangerous courtesan-spy, the wise but hidden king. Of course something was missing – an orphan to save the world. Neb and eventually, Winters, became those orphans. And ultimately, I lifted a large portion of unexpected backstory (quite spontaneously) from a short novel I had intended to write called The 100th Tale of Felip Carnelyin: The Ship that Sailed the Moon. That’s now shaping up to be a trilogy of its own at some point as the backstory of Lasthome becomes more clear in the writing of the Psalms of Isaak. And in my original conception of the series, Winters and Vlad Li Tam were not POV characters but I think the richness of the series was really enhanced by their storylines being added to the mix. I’m especially pleased with what I’ve “discovered” about Vlad Li Tam over the course of the four books I’ve written. In Requiem, I think he even steals the show a little. And I don’t want to spoil things, but the Big Important Thing that happens to Petronus at the end of Canticle was another discovery I made as I was writing.
Ultimately, even with an outline to guide me, I’m primarily a writer who follows the instinctive pull of the story. I frequently feel like the characters themselves are surprising me as I get to know them by throwing rocks at them and watching what they do with those rocks.
52 Reviews: Having just finished reading Walter M. Miller Jr's A Canticle For Leibowitz, I was struck with the idea that Lamentation also deals with the theme of mankind's misuse of knowledge and inability to learn from the mistakes of the past, locking humanity in a vicious cycle of moving from apocalypse to apocalypse. Was Miller's novel an influence? Or is there a different message you hope readers will gain through the story?
Ken Scholes: The comparison has come up before, especially given that the second book in the series is called Canticle. But any influence it might’ve had was just cooking in my crockpot brain all this time – I read Miller’s book probably thirty years ago while in high school. There’s definitely a similar theme – the notion that humanity’s self-destructive nature and its tenacity for survival are a continuing cycle. In this particular story, we’re in a very distant future dealing with the same issues. More than a message, I think the series is an exploration of that theme along with themes like the role of religion as a tool or a weapon and how people deal with trauma. The role of technology as a tool or a weapon and how people respond to change and betrayal. And I don’t present these as explorations for my reader though they’ll follow along. They are my own explorations, really. But first and foremost, my real goal is to tell a good story and keep people strapped into the series, ready for the next book.
52 Reviews: When you think about thematic elements to both the series and the individual novels, do you have specific goal in mind, a unifying moral or principle that shades the journeys of your characters? If so, what would you say the theme for the volumes of the series thus far? How about for Requiem?
Ken Scholes: I think those elements are there though for the most part, I’m not consciously crafting them.
The one thing I’ve tried to do with each book is tie the title in to that specific book. So Lamentation is about the raw, violence of sudden loss and our reaction to it. In Canticle, I introduce the song that the title derives from but I also tie it back to the idea that life is a non-metrical song. An antiphon is a response to a canticle so the third volume, all about that response being shaped, fell into place nicely. In Requiem, we’re back to loss again but of more internal things alongside the external. And in the finale, Hymn, I’ll steer us in a direction that brings that title more to life.
I don’t think there is a unifying moral or principle or a specific goal but if there is, I probably will need to complete the series and have some time for hindsight to grow. But with my characters, I start with figuring out what they love and what they fear, then force them to deal with their fears in pursuit of what they love or long for. And then, as they achieve what they love, I try to find new fears as a result of laying hold of what they love. For instance, Rudolfo’s story arc around becoming a husband and a father in the midst of such dark times takes him down an interesting path as he realizes he cannot protect what he loves the most – his sense of powerlessness and how he deals with that is a quiet part of the series but I think critical to him as a character.
52 Reviews: Take an opportunity to brag about the newest addition to the ranks of your paper children. Give us a preview of what we can expect from the Named Lands within the pages of Requiem?
Ken Scholes: Requiem is the first book that I’ve written where I finished and thought “Wow, this is a good book.” That’s mostly a reflection of my growth as a writer becoming more confident in a new medium. Until Lamentation, I’d never written anything longer than 15,000 words. With the first two books of the series, I was utterly convinced they were bad and broken books – it took a five book contract and a lot of kind notes from readers to turn that belief around and I grew to appreciate the books over time. With Antiphon, I remember thinking, “Well, it’s an okay book; it doesn’t suck.” So it’s nice to reach a place of more confidence here with the fourth novel.
Ken Scholes: It would be tricky to say much about Requiem without spoiling things for folks who’ve not read the series. But all the major players are back and we get to travel to some new places. And I introduce a new character named Marta that I’m quite fond of – another show stealer, I think. And…well…rather than go on about it, how about I just point readers to the prelude and they can read it or not as they wish? You can find it here.
52 Reviews: Congratulations on completing Requiem. I noticed you mentioned "book post partum" on your Facebook page. One would think that finishing a manuscript would be more of a euphoric experience. Could you tell us a little about that part of the creative process?
Ken Scholes: Well, the initial experience is certainly euphoric. But there’s also a lot of exhaustion involved, particularly with this fourth book. It was written over a much longer stretch of time – nearly two years – and during some times of tremendous stress, loss and gain. I wrote Requiem while holding down a full time job and parenting brand new twin daughters while navigating various losses and a debilitating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The book was a hard labor and that final month of pushing out the first draft and the revision were grueling. That said, it also re-kindled my love for writing after about five years of it not being something I loved too much given the circumstances under which I was doing it.
But regardless, each book has been wrapped with a burst of initial euphoria followed within a day or so by a foggy depression that gets gradually better with time, rest and putting my brain back into other people’s stories rather than my own. In talking to other writers, it seems to be a pretty common thing. I suspect that it really comes from finally finishing a project that’s required a lot of work and time – the brain and the body are just tired from all the input and output around that focus and it needs time to rest, reflect and prepare for the next big project. And I’m still in the fog of it even now, but am gradually nosing the car back onto the highway to get on with my next projects. I’ll play with some short fiction for a few months and then, around Thanksgiving, I’ll start gearing up to write Hymn.
Many thanks to Ken for taking time out of his busy schedule to take part in our inaugural interview. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on Requiem, and will definitely be sharing my thoughts with all the folks reading here.