The Psalms of Isaak is truly one of the best ongoing series of the moment, and I’m sure that even when it is done readers will look fondly back at it. As such, I was delighted when writer Ken Scholes agreed to answer a few questions for the blog. Scholes through his books Lamentation, Canticle and Antiphon (reviews here, here and here respectively) as well as his short fiction has garnered quite a bit of praise which makes him an author well-worth checking out. The relatively large result of our exchange can be found below and it is certainly one of the better Q&As I have conducted so far. So scroll down or click-through to read it. Enjoy.
LEC Book Reviews: You are now officially three novels in to your career as a novelist. How have things changed for you personally and as a writer since you first signed the contract for Lamentation?
Ken Scholes: I've definitely seen some changes personally and professionally. Sometimes, it feels like I went from zero to 120 in three seconds. Things have certainly gotten busier. Interest in the books has sent me out and about promoting them -- attending events like Book Expo America, the American Library Association annual conference and other tradeshows along with appearances at bookstores on tour or at conventions. And my production needs increased significantly when I went from writing maybe 30k words of fiction per year to something closer to 200k. That shrinks the amount of time you have in your life for other things.
But that kind of leap in productivity also brings a leap in growth. Several reviewers and readers have noted that the Psalms of Isaak continues to get better with each book. I believe that's likely true though I'm too close to the work to see it. My tendency is to stretch and grow by practicing and I've been getting a lot of practice.
Another big change is in my visibility. I spent a decade in relative obscurity selling short stories to various markets pretty much under everyone's radar. With Lamentation's publication and the subsequent publication of Canticle and Antiphon, I've gotten a lot more attention. Invitations to Sekrit Projekts, a regular stream of fan mail, far more interview requests and reviews. Being pretty introverted by nature, I'm never really sure what to do with the attention other than try not to let it wear me down and keep my focus on getting work done.
The biggest change, though, has been the very landscape of my life. From the time of the contract offer to now, I've endured significant (and painful) losses and equally significant (and joyful but stressful) gains in the midst of managing the expansion of my workload and the wacky self-identity stuff that happens with this kind of launch. For a while there, with all of the increased pressure, I actually hated writing. That's getting much better but it was certainly a struggle.
All in all, it's been as good a transition as it can be under the circumstances and I'm grateful for it.
LBR: Before Lamentation you were known for your short fiction. What prompted the move from that to writing a series of five full-length novels?
KS: Friends and family had been encouraging me to tackle novels from the start. Back in 1995 and again in 1997 I made two 20k word forays into attempts at novels that hit the middle muddle and stalled. So I focused on short fiction until I started selling stories. Once I started selling stories, it became a comfortable niche and I found myself reluctant to tackle anything much longer. Before Lamentation my longest piece was 15k words.
After winning the Writers of the Future contest in 2005, editors started taking more notice of me and several started asking when they might see novels from me. But the very thought of something longer locked me up -- I was actually afraid of writing novels. It was the length of commitment combined with the fear that I'd need a similar learning curve to what I'd experienced in short fiction. How many shorts did I write before I wrote something publishable? How many novels would I then have to write? And during that time, what would happen to the little bit of name recognition I was garnering with short fiction if I was spending six months writing practice novels. I'd failed to recognize that you use the same tools to build a shed as you do to build a house. What you're building is different, it takes longer for a house, but the basics of tool-wielding remain the same.
Ultimately it was the combination of a note from Shawna McCarthy on rejection slip for the second story in my so-called Androfrancine Cycle and a dare from Jay Lake and my wife. The first story had done well at Realms of Fantasy but Shawna didn't feel the second stood on its own well enough. Her note said "Go write a novel with these characters in this world." And that very week, Jay and Jen took me to dinner and just relentlessly badgered me until I agreed to at least try...and to use the story arch of my planned four short stories in the Androfrancine Cycle.
The dare was simple: A first draft of a novel by World Fantasy (at the end of October.) This was the beginning of September. If I had the draft, Jay would be my personal literary pimp at the con, introducing me to everyone and anyone he knew that might be interested in looking at it. I took the dare, won the bet, and then sat back in amazement to watch what happened when the story grabbed Jay, then commenced to grab everyone up the publishing chain that read it. It was thirteen months and six days from the day that I started Lamentation to the day that I had an offer in hand from Tor for all five books in the series.
LBR: It’s interesting to note the various occupations - such as being a Baptist minister - that you’ve held in the past. How have these life experiences translated into your writing?
KS: Well, I think life experiences transform us, grow us, teach us and as writers, who we are bleeds out into our fiction. I've certainly used most of my past jobs -- military, insurance, merchandise supply, public procurement, busking and absolutely the ministry. And with that latter role, I'm in the rather rare place of having lived a life of faith as a religious person and minister...and then having gone through the glacial and sometimes painful transformation into a person of reason with more in common with the secular community of agnostics and atheists (I consider myself to be both). It gives me a unique perspective because I can understand both worlds and I write from both sides of that fence.
The Psalms of Isaak deals a great deal with that struggle between reason and religion -- a group of secular humanists using a religious hierarchy to protect humanity and guard its ancient technologies and knowledge to prevent future catastrophe pitted against a blood cult worshipping the Wizard Kings of the past.
And any tour through either of my short story collections will showcase various aspects of my experience -- both career-wise and life-wise.
LBR: As I’m sure many have noticed, The Psalms of Isaak are very much a blend of genres. Was that your intention from the beginning, and if so what lead you to make this decision?
KS: Some was intentional. Some was organic. The intentional bits were things like keeping the scenes short like a thriller with multiple POVs so that there was someone for everyone to love. I watched several TV shows as I prepped myself to write (though I'm not sure I knew I was prepping myself.) I found the new Battlestar Galactica along with Firefly and Lost to be fascinating stories and I wanted to write a series of books that echoed BSG's exploration of current events in a science fictional setting, Firefly's ensemble of interesting characters and Lost's ability to build suspense and develop characters interconnected by their lives both on and off the island.
Ultimately, I wanted the books to have a little bit of everything for everyone and create something that someone outside of the genre could enjoy. Besides hearing this again and again in fan emails, I think the best indication that I'd accomplished this was when my own father (who once told me no one wanted to read stories about three eyed babies) swore up and down that Lamentation was not science fiction or fantasy...it was just a good story. He was a man who rarely gushed and really had no use at all for SF/F but I'll never forget the day he called to gush about that book.
Of course, there are a few out there who are discombobulated by this. I've seen reviews (even in French!) where people are unhappy about my use of fantasy archetypes or unhappy about my use of science fictional elements or not doing this or that thing that "ought to be" in said genres. But overall, most people who read the books seem to like what I'm up to. And a few are even saying I'm doing something new and re-defining in the genre. I'm not sure I'd buy that -- I don't think there's much "new" out there to be had. But I'll take the props I'll get and just hope it translates into books sold.
LBR: With every book you add new point of view characters to the story. How difficult is it to keep all of these threads under control? Are you ever afraid that you will get carried away?
KS: Oh, I'm afraid with every book, not so much about getting carried away or keeping the threads under control but of whether or not I'll actually pull off what I'm trying to accomplish -- that sense of a seamless, cohesive story that advances the plot and develops the characters further. But that's just my nature and will be probably until I've written a few more novels.
I started with four POV characters -- Rudolfo, Jin, Petronus and Neb -- with a few other characters scattered into Lamentation. For Canticle, I added Vlad Li Tam and Winters as part of the ensemble. But any of the others that have shown up, I've added more as guest stars. They may or may not get much air time in other books. In Canticle, it was Lysias and in Antiphon it was Charles. In Requiem, I may have a few scenes of each of those in addition to scenes with a new character, Martyna (Marta for short). And of course, I'm not done with a lot of these characters. Beyond this initial five volume story, I've left lots of room to go back and tell standalone stories using characters like Lysias, Esarov the Democrat, Ire Li Tam, Rae Li Tam, Aedric, Renard and Charles. I've even thought a bit about going back after the series is wrapped and writing additional books that fit into the timeline of the main story arch, involving the hundreds of side stories that have emerged and not gotten a lot of air time. As a matter of fact, in some instances I've intentionally referenced events that I've glossed over in the books in order to go back and create stories there.
LBR: There is a mystery at the heart of your series that drives most of the plot. How much do you plan on revealing explicitly or leave hanging?
KS: I think most of it will be revealed at the end. However, it will be revealed through the eyes of characters that may not fully understand what they've learned. And I'm leaving the events of the past that brought about this particular slice of time in this world largely murky so that I can go back and reveal more in books set before the fall of Windwir.
The trick will be to create a compelling, satisfying conclusion to this part of the saga that gives enough information for readers to extrapolate without violating the careful point-of-view of my characters.
LBR: How much of the series did you have planned in advance and how much do you lay out before writing every book?
KS: My muse and inner redneck, Leroy, tricked me into this series by convincing me it was four interconnected short stories that gave us 6k word snapshots of key events in this story arch. The discovery of Isaak in the ruins of Windwir, the trial of Sethbert and ending of the Order, and two other key events I'll not reveal here to avoid spoilers in Antiphon and Requiem -- these were all anchors and I had a vague sense of what transpired between those events but did not know the details. I wrote the first and third book without outlines. I had an outline for Canticle but never once referenced it during the drafting process.
The most planning I do is a bit of verbal processing either in the car with my wife or over the phone with John or on breaks at my dayjob with Jerry. And I share the book as I write it, chapter by chapter, taking big course correcting types of feedback as I go and reserving the minor changes for when I'm done. When I'm stumped, Leroy usually doesn't let me budge until I think it through. Sometimes I might get 1k words into a scene and realize I'm on the wrong path. Then, those words go off to the Extra Word File and I find my course again.
Some folks have imagined me in a Named Lands command center surrounded by whiteboards and sticky notes. Not so. It's just me and my imagination an itty bitty HP notebook for the most part.
LBR: The writing of this series has been interspersed for you with great loss and difficult times (death of family members) as well as some joyful ones (birth of your daughters). How much have these events directly affected the themes and/or plot of the Psalms of Isaak?
KS: Good question. Hard question. I think most of the themes and plot were already in place before these losses and gains occurred but they were certainly sharpened. For instance, I received some notes about the birth scene of Jakob in Canticle where readers were sure that my experience watching my daughters birth had informed that scene. I'd actually written it nearly a year before Jen became pregnant and nearly two years before Lizzy and Rae were born. But now that I have them -- and they're roughly the same age as Jakob in the series -- I'm certainly letting that inform me.
As to loss, I've swum those waters for a long time. I lost my brother when I was four years old and have weathered other losses since. And the rush of losses that hit between late 2007 and early 2009 certainly gave a renewed sense of grief to the process. Of course, those losses were preceded by my Mom's failing physical and mental health -- something that began in earnest in 2004. So I've had a helluva six year run on the Stressorsizer Treadmill.
I think the biggest impact of these losses and gains have not been on the series as much as on me, and I'm confident they will be manifesting themselves for years to come as I continue to process them. And the impacts on me have been varied -- the emergence of some health issues (non-life threatening) from the strain of it all, three rather significant work stoppages -- five months for each parent and nearly a year with the babies -- that have created other stresses in our lives. Because if you need to write to pay your daycare and you find you can't write...well, you can see what that might do to your stress levels.
Still, in the midst of pretty extreme stress and grief, I've managed to write three novels that the world seems to enjoy...and now I'm working on a fourth.
LBR: What can you tell us about the next Psalms of Isaak volume, Requiem, and any other projects you might be working/thinking about?
KS: Well, it's difficult to talk much about Requiem without talking about Antiphon and the preceding books. Because each book reveals a new piece of the puzzle, I want to be careful not to spoil the reading experience for people. But I can say that everything set up at the end of Antiphon precedes to the next logical place both for the characters' growth and the plot's development.
As to other projects, I've got one Sekrit Projekt -- a novella -- that I will be able to announce any day now. And I have another that we've been going around and around on to get a contract together -- another exciting but Sekrit Projekt. I'm also continuing to produce short fiction where I can, grabbing some of higher paying projects to help offset the baby expenses. A few of those are collaborations with friends that I'm pretty excited about. And since I can write a short story in a handful of hours, I can balance it against my word production on Requiem so that no one loses.
LBR: I understand you are in the middle of a book tour for Antiphon. What are for you the highlights of these events?
KS: I think my favorite part will always be the people. I get to see a lot of friends, meet a lot of new friends, and hang out with fans of the series. I enjoy that a great deal. This last leg took me up into places where I’ve lived so there was a lot of good re-connecting.
My least favorite part is how tired I get from the traveling and the people. I'm an introvert who loves to be "out there" but pays for it after. And I have to maintain pretty careful balance or a few days away can lead to a work of not working on the writing.
For this tour, my amazing publicist (Cassie Ammerman) at Tor has created a schedule that gives me a lot of gaps between events and spreads out what might've been ten solid days into three smaller runs. This has helped tremendously and I’ve been able to keep easing into the story of Requiem while touring. I still have a few days of recovery after each leg, but it’s mild.
LBR: Thank you for your time. Any parting words?
KS: Thanks for the interview. Yes, parting words…please buy my books. Every sale helps. So give them a try and see if you like them. If you want to read more about the books or me, visit me at www.kenscholes.com.