Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Interview with Teresa Frohock, author of Miserere

Teresa Frohock is both a friend and the author of Miserere: an Autumn Tale, a book I enjoyed so much that I gave her the following blurb:

"Miserere is about redemption, and the triumph of our best impulses over our worst. It's also about swords, monsters, chases, ghosts, magic, court intrigues and battles to the death. It's also (and this is the important part) really, really good."

You can read my full review here.

Teresa graciously agreed to answer some questions for me about the book.

You and I have both recently written books that include people of genuine, true religious faith (my book is The Hum and the Shiver, out this fall). The pitfalls of this are enormous: the danger of sanctimoniousness, of preachiness (literal and figurative), of simply alienating readers who don't share whatever faith the characters embody. How much did you worry about this, and how did you overcome it?

Thanks so much for having me here, Alex, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about some of this.

Truth be told, I’m still worried about some of those things. Although I think people who read speculative fiction are open-minded and much more amenable to experimentation than other genres, I still worry that some may suffer contempt prior to investigation. I hope not.

It helps that I have no agenda here. I’m not out to push a viewpoint, Christian or otherwise. I just wanted to tell a story, and as I constructed Woerld, I realized the focus would be on Lucian, who happened to belong to the Christian bastion. From that point forward, I had to educate myself about Christianity and I was really surprised by the facts I found.

The version of Christianity that I present on Woerld is gleaned not just from Biblical sources, but also from the Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypa. I wanted to see what Christianity might have been like before the Schism of 1054 when Rome split from the Byzantine Church. I approached all the religions on Woerld strictly from a scholarly angle at first, then I eased the spiritual elements inherent to the practices of the religion into the story.

I focused entirely on the growth of the individual character and not the dogma of the religion. And that was hard, showing how the adherents struggle with their faith from personal viewpoints. When we speak of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, we tend to think in terms of groups, not individuals. I wanted to put the focus on the individual and show that
personal growth doesn’t come from automatically joining a group, but comes through the internal work of the individual.

If you read most religious texts closely, they emphasize a personal contact with a higher power, not group-think. So I did very much what you’ve done with Reverend Craig in The Hum and the Shiver—I simply had Lucian live his life in accordance with the dictates of his beliefs. I’ve always loved Emerson and Thoreau’s writings and their emphasis on the individual’s responsibility to contact the divine within and bring that light into the world through action. That is a concept inherent to all religions and I wanted to illustrate that philosophy in Miserere.

You incorporate a young woman, Lindsay, who must learn both to be a warrior (a common fantasy trope) and to truly believe in God (not so common). What did she represent for you?

Lindsay represents our twenty-first century’s society secular thinking about religion, our preconceptions and our misconceptions. Her exposure to religion comes primarily through the media, meaning she understands the various religions through the extremes of the worst possible examples of the adherents: politicians who mouth their version of Christianity while they actively engage in immoral behavior; a Catholic Church hiding child-molesting priests; jihadists that believe their way to paradise is paved with the bodies they leave behind; Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Jews constantly fighting one another either in rhetoric or with guns.

This is what Lindsay is exposed to day after day, then she is taken to the obligatory church service, plunked in a pew, and told God is love. Needless to say, she’s a tad cynical over the whole thing. Kind of like the rest of us.

So I like having her as the voice of the reader, to question Lucian and the adults in Woerld about how things work. That way I can gently ease my readers into Woerld yet not make the picture too rosy. It’s not. There are serious conflicts among the bastions and the governments in Woerld—it was never my intent to present a Utopian society.

Children aren’t afraid to question the status quo, and they see things very clearly, more clearly than adults want to admit. Lindsay is the perfect lens to view Woerld and its imperfections.

Your novel is definitely a fantasy, and many fantasies create their own religions. You chose to use actual existing world religions. What was your thought process behind that?

I thought about Tolkien and Lewis and wondered what The Lord of the Rings would have looked like if Tolkien had written it as a Catholic story instead of embedding the religious tenets beneath Middle Earth’s mythology, or what Narnia would have looked like if, instead of a lion, Aslan was the Christ. Not being as much of a fan of Tolkien as I am of Lewis, I really started reading Lewis’ works; he had a talent for rooting out the spirituality of Christianity and getting to the essence of its beliefs without sanctimony.

I checked out some other current fantasy titles that used fallen angels, and while they addressed the fallen part of the situation, very few showed it from a Christian angle. I think God’s Demon by Wayne Barlowe was the closest novel to presenting hell from a Christian viewpoint, and I love what Barlowe did with that story. The language he used, the characterization, and his perception of hell as an actual, physical place just knocked me for a loop.

Barlowe took the war in heaven and showed how the fallen angels fought. I’ve always been fascinated by the war in heaven and often wondered: what if it’s still going on? I’m sacrilegious like that.

In the end, I fell in love with the absolute challenge of it. This is my own ego talking now, but I wanted to prove you could write a fantasy with Christians in it without the story becoming insipid or preachy. I began constructing Woerld and realized that all religions have some form of hell or purgatory, so realistically, it wouldn’t be just Christians. I mean why would heaven only use a fraction of its forces to combat evil?

So the other religions started seeping in and with that there must be a hierarchy, and the structure of Woerld evolved until it became what it is in Miserere. The more I worked on it, the more detail seeped in, and again, I just loved the challenge of using real religions.

You have a male hero torn between and among a group of women: his sister, his former lover, and his new protégé. Was there a deliberate thought process behind the gender roles for these characters?

I wanted to step outside of a few of the standard fantasy tropes and twist them. The most common trope from the fairy tales of my youth was that of the beautiful princess who was captured by the evil warlord or witch and rescued by a handsome prince. I wanted to turn that trope upside down and show the handsome prince who was captured by the wicked queen and rescued by the beautiful princess. Only in Miserere, the prince takes a real beating from the wicked queen, the beautiful princess is mauled and half-mad, and the wicked queen isn’t strung too tight either.

That was my primary thinking, then everything sort of got away from me. Most people are conditioned to see men in one of two roles: protector or aggressor. Lucian sees himself as the protector, even though it is Lindsay and Rachael who end up saving him more often than he saves them. He is determined not to abandon them, though, and that’s important, that desire to be a part of someone’s life even if it means constraints on his existence.

Nor did I want the women to be perfect. Rachael had her part in her own downfall; Catarina is a grand case of self-will run riot; and Lindsay thinks they’re all being horribly unfair to Lucian while she downplays his crimes in her own mind.

When I got the cover art for Miserere (by the wonderful Michael C. Hayes), I just cried, it was better than anything I could have imagined. I had been dreading what an artist’s conception of Miserere would be, but more than anything, I feared chain mail bikinis on the women and Lucian standing with Catarina and Rachael kneeling or the women pictured lower in the foreground.

Instead, Michael got exactly what I was doing and busted the tropes with me: they’re all standing with their backs to one another; Rachael and Catarina are wearing the armor they would probably choose; Lucian is on his knees between them; and the walls of the Citadel rise behind them. Catarina’s face is cunning, Rachael is distrustfully looking at Lucian, and Lucian—my
poor Lucian—looks to Heaven, because when you’re trapped between those two women, your only salvation is from above.

Thanks to Teresa Frohock for answering my questions. Miserere: an Autumn Tale is available now from Night Shade Books.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: Miserere by Teresa Frohock

It's not easy working religion into fantasy. Actually, that's the wrong word: I should say "faith." Anyone can invent a religion: both L. Ron Hubbard and George Lucas have made millions selling their made-up beliefs. But to depict the way faith works for people, the inner process of how belief gives strength, is hard. It always runs the risk of triteness if it's a fictional belief, or prosletyzing if it's not. And its very inclusion makes the reader question the author's motives.

Which is what makes Teresa Frohock's debut novel Miserere: an Autumn Tale that much more remarkable.

She creates a cosmology that includes our own world, as well as the alternate reality known as the Woerld. The fallen angels exiled from Heaven want to leave Hell and get their revenge on humanity, but to do so they have to get through the Woerld, a semi-medieval society where children plucked from our reality grow up to be the warriors of their new world. One of those warriors, Lucien, has betrayed both his order and his lover, abandoning her in (literal) Hell to aid his evil twin sister. He sets out to make amends, only to find himself saddled with a ten-year-old girl snatched from earth and fated to be a warrior-exorcist like him. Now he must battle to save her, convince his demon-possessed former love that he's changed, and prevent his twin from precipitating the final war between Heaven and Hell.

As anyone who's read my Eddie LaCrosse novels can tell, I'm a sucker for the warrior-battling-his-own-failures trope, and Lucien really delivers. He has done some truly ghastly things for all the wrong reasons, and ended up middle-aged, with a bad leg and a positively Wagnerian guilty conscience. Yet he's held on to a kernel of integrity, and he uses that to start his path to redemption. Rachael, his lover who is now possessed by a low-level demon that's taking her over bit by bit, is also seeking redemption for her own foolish trust and impulsiveness. And Lindsey, the girl fated to be a warrior-exorcist like Lucien, behaves and acts like a real ten-year-old, with all the strengths and weaknesses that entails.

These warriors call on their faith, reciting prayers to work magic. And their faith is unabashedly Christian, although it's made explicit that in Woerld all religions are represented equally and get along, the exact opposite of how they do here. And I suppose if God made swords glow and the earth open up to swallow enemies on request, faith would be a lot easier for the rest of us, too. But God isn't like the Force (which, with the advent of midichlorians, seems to be merely the static charge thrown off by viruses rubbing together): faith aids the warriors, but doesn't do the job for them.

And don't let all this talk of religion put you off, because Miserere is not a book with an agenda. First and foremost it's a fantasy adventure, with battles and chases and monsters. The extra depth and thoughtfulness Frohock brings to the story is gravy. I was asked to blurb this book, and after I read it, I did so with no reservations. I recommend it whole-heartedly to any fans of my books.

Watch for an interview with Teresa Frohock here in the near future.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Just in: cover art for The Hum and the Shiver

Here's the final cover art for my next novel, out this September. The preliminary illustration used on Amazon featured a male figure, but since the book's protagonist is a young woman, Tor's awesome art deparment redid it.

What do you think?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Advice to writers: swing for the fence

Sometimes I get asked for advice about being a writer.* Usually it's a general question such as, "How can I become a writer?" or "What should I write about?" The answer to the first is easy: you either are or you aren't, and deep down you know. But that second question is a tricky one. Conventional wisdom says "write what you know," but since I know nothing about being a sword jockey in a mythological world or a vampire in 1975 Memphis, I can't really get behind that answer. But I do have an answer. Sort of.

In the liner notes for his 1995 Greatest Hits compilation, Bruce Springsteen calls the song "Born to Run":

"My shot at the title. A 24 yr. old kid aimin' at 'the greatest rock 'n roll record ever.'"

In a 2003 interview, he elaborated:

"With that one I was shooting for the moon. I said, 'I don't want to make a good record, I want to make The Greatest Record Somebody's Ever Heard.' I was filled with arrogance and thought, I can do that, y'know?"

When I was a kid, the cliche was that anyone who wanted to be a writer presumably also wanted to write The Great American Novel. I never knew what that was exactly, but I assumed it was some sort of book that encapsulated the American experience in such a universal way that anyone who read it would immediately connect with it. There were contenders presented in English classes: The Grapes of Wrath and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were the two most common. But neither connected with me. Either I was un-American, or the definition was essentially meaningless. Which it was, and is.

But it serves a purpose. Like "the greatest rock 'n roll record ever," it's a goal that we should have the arrogance to shoot for. Yet we don't. If anything, we're taught not to attempt it.

What passes for "serious" literature nowadays is often the result of multiple generations of writers going through MFA programs, publishing first novels of thinly-disguised coming-of-age autobiography, returning to academia as teachers and showing the next generation how to write and publish first novels of thinly-disguised coming-of-age autobiography. It's a recipe for institutionalized boredom that goes a long way toward explaining why you don't see so many bookstores anymore (and explains why something like David Foster Wallace'sThe Pale King, a novel literally about boredom, can gain such critical acclaim). The Great American Novel will never be produced by someone whose entire life consists of such limited experience.

Genre fiction, at least, is still popular (and believe me, I'm hugely grateful for that), but will never overcome the stigma attached to it (after all, it's "merely" science fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc.). And that's okay: we'll be happily serving our readers while the rest of the literary world wonders why no one reads anymore.

So where will the Great American Novel come from, then?

Beats me, but I do know one thing about it.

It will come from someone with the arrogance to shoot for the title.

So take your shot, man. Have the arrogance. Swing for the fence.

That's my advice.

*and that's especially funny since I've been writing all my life and my first novel didn't come out until I was over forty. Perhaps they'd be better served asking one of those hot young things with a best-seller at 25. But hey, people do ask me.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Eddie LaCrosse IV has a title!

At last! I'm proud to announce the title of the fourth adventure of Eddie LaCrosse, out in 2012 from Tor Books:


What do you think?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kurosawa meets Eddie LaCrosse

Quite a while ago, I posted the trailer to Akira Kurosawa's crime thriller High and Low, and mentioned it was one of the influences on my novel Dark Jenny. I never got around to explaining that until now.

High and Low is based on one of Ed McBain's "87th Precinct" series of police procedurals, in this case King's Ransom. And although the film changes many of the details of plot and setting to make it work in postwar Japan, the central dilemma remains the same. A wealthy businessman is sent a ransom note saying his son has been kidnapped, but it's actually the son of his chauffer, taken by mistake. Does he pay the ransom anyway, even if it means financial and professional ruin?

But it wasn't the plot of High and Low that influenced my novel, it was its structure. The first hour of the film takes place in the businessman's apartment, mostly in the living room that overlooks greater Tokyo, making it the "high" of the title. The claustrophobia adds to the tension, as Kurosawa invokes the sense of evil forces watching from below in the labyrinthine streets. The police must crawl on the floor to avoid being seen at the windows, and each time the phone rings everyone stops dead.

I wanted some of that same vibe in my scenes at Nodlon Castle, which occupy the first fourteen chapters of Dark Jenny. I tried keeping everything in the great hall, but since I'm not Kurosawa, I wasn't quite able to make it work. Still, I hope I conveyed some of the sense of cabin fever, of Eddie trapped within stone walls and ceilings, unable to do much of anything except wait and hope for a break.

SPOILER ALERT! Both for my book and Kurosawa's film!

Once the ransom has been paid, the police are free to use all means at their disposal to track down the kidnappers. The film then turns into a documentary-style chase through the city's rougher sections, the "Low" of the title. It's as different from the spacious, sparsely-furnished apartment as it's possible to be: "a sordid sin-market filled with mixed-race couples and manic frugging, squabbling sailors and cat-eyed slatterns, ravaged junk-zombies and undercover cops from Hell," according to the DVD liner notes by Chuck Stephens.

Similarly, when Eddie is finally allowed to leave, he travels across the breadth of the island of Grand Bruan, visiting towns, villages and manor houses all very different from Nodlon Castle. I wanted to get the sense of freedom and relief Eddie feels at finally being allowed to do something, the same way Detective Tokura and his men do in the Kurosawa film.

Part of the fun of writing any Eddie LaCrosse story is finding a way to use influences that are about as far from sword and sorcery as you can get, so working in elements of a sixties Japanese crime thriller appealed to me immensely. It also provided a structure for my faux-Arthurian story that let me deal both with court intrigue and full-on battles without bogging down in either. Without it, Dark Jenny would not have been as lean and fast-paced as I hope it turned out to be.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Blinded by the Dark: chiaroscuro and Eddie LaCrosse

Recently a reviewer was kind enough to say this about my latest novel:

"Dark Jenny is a fast-paced mystery with plenty of action; it’s also intelligent, original, and satisfyingly chiaroscuro."

You don't encounter the word "chiaroscuro" every day, and several readers asked me what it meant. Quoting from Webster, it's a "pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color." In other words, it's the use of darkness to let you see the light, and vice versa.

I first encountered the term with regards to one of my favorite genres, film noir. It's a great example of turning a flaw into an asset. Many of these movies were shot on very low budgets, which often meant cheap sets. To disguise this, the cinematographers would keep the sets dark, so that their flaws were hidden. Many of these same cinematographers, and the directors they worked for, were also expatriates from Nazi Germany, which meant they learned their craft during the Weimer Republic days of the great Expressionist films like M, Nosferatu, Metropolis and The Golem. This meant that not only did they know how to light for darkness, so to speak, but they knew why.

Peter Lorre in M. The film is actually shot in this weird vertical aspect ratio.

Chiaroscuro thrived in black and white film noir. Witness the use of shadows during the fist fight in Out of the Past, or the scene between Jonesy and Canino in The Big Sleep with only their dark silhouettes on the frosted glass. Watch the way Mike Mazurki appears behind Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet. You could spend the day listing scenes that apply.

Dick Powell and Mike Mazuski in Murder, My Sweet.

So how does such a visual term translate to prose, specifically to the world of Eddie LaCrosse? It's a modification of the "innocent abroad" trope, in which the moral status of various characters (i.e., their shades of darkness) are made plain against the spiritual and moral purity of the innocent main character. Treasure Island, for example, uses the boy Jim Hawkins as the moral yardstick against which all the other characters are measured.

But in crime and mystery, it goes a step further, in that it allows the reader to interpret not just the people but the world. Raymond Chandler famously said of his genre, "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." In other words, he is the light going down the streets of darkness (no Biblical reference intended).

Harrison Ford and Sean Young in Blade Runner, which transposes chiaroscuro to the future.

That's how I see Eddie, and how I hope he's used in the stories. He's not mean in the sense Chandler uses the word (both vicious and ignoble), but he has been in the past, and he knows how easy it is to cross that line. He's tarnished, certainly, but he's in the process of polishing that away. And he's not afraid of the walk, although he has sense enough to be scared of what might live in the shadows he passes through.

Without his light, we could never see what dwells in the shadows. And without the shadows, we'd never know the value of the light, of the hero, of our guy Eddie. And that's how chiaroscuro fits into the world of Eddie LaCrosse.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Curious about my next book, The Hum and the Shiver? Here's your chance to check it out before it hits shelves. I have five advance reader copies; leave a comment on this blog post before midnight Sunday, June 12 for chance to win one. Be sure and leave an e-mail with your comment.

Here's the video teaser trailer to wet your whistle: