What's Spellwright about?
It’s an epic fantasy that takes place in a world where magical written languages can be peeled off the page and made physically real. Here spellwrights write luminescent sentences that shape themselves into powerful spells. Adept authors can cast information across thousands of miles or write creatures made purely of text. Into this world is born Nicodemus Weal, a wizardly apprentice who can produce vast amounts of magical language. However, Nico was born with a disability so severe that any text he touches misspells in erratic, sometimes dangerous ways. His disappointing life plods along until one day a powerful wizard is murdered with a misspell. Quickly, Nicodemus becomes the primary suspect of the crime. Hunted by both investigators and a hidden killer, Nicodemus must race to discover the truth about the murder, the nature of magic, and himself.
What are your favourite three books?
Sweet heaven! Just three? I’m breaking into a sweat thinking about narrowing a list down to ten. If I absolutely have to, I’d say Grendel by John Gardner, The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin, and My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story by Abraham Verghese.
We've often heard the phrase, “write what you know”. After medical school, do you think you'll write medical thrillers or do you plan to stick with fantasy? Is there another genre you'd like to write?
It’s hard to see myself writing anything that doesn’t have both fantasy and medicine at its heart. But once the Spellwright Trilogy is complete, I’d like to explore my love for historical fiction. I’ve been keeping casual research notes on two possible projects. The first would be a fantastical murder mystery drawing on the strange beliefs many Elizabethan’s held about the malleability of the body. It would feature a poor girl who’s too witty for her own good and the fascinating historical figure of Thomas Lodge, a playwright who rubbed elbows with (and competed against) Shakespeare before he left literature to earn a medical doctorate and become one of the age’s most respected physicians.
The second possible project would be a science fantasy taking place around 1900s when much of modern medical science was being codified.
The story would focus on a young physician struggling with chronic disease and bumping up against the speculative elements that would allow me to bring to life many of the amazing and underexplored mythologies of Pacific civilizations.
But both of these are very far off on the horizon. I might think of something better in the meantime. And, sadly, it’s a publishing fact of life that I won’t be able to sell them (under my real name, at least) unless the Spellwright books do well. So, I try not to daydream too much and keep my head down and work away at Spellbound and getting the word out about Spellwright.
Do you think epic fantasy will continue to become grittier, with less magic and more moral ambiguity? If so, why did you choose to write classic epic fantasy with lots of magic and a clearly sympathetic protagonist?
In my estimation, the light-on-magic, lots-o-brutality trend of epic fantasy is still gathering steam. The gritty trinity of George R R Martin, Scott Lynch, and Joe Abercrombie is writing excellent fantasies that attract wide audiences and carry on a tradition of greats like Michael Morcock and Gene Wolfe. I read them all. I admire them all (most especially Lynch’s command of voice, wit, and suspense). There are plenty of talented authors rallying to their banner, and I cheer for their success and the success of all fantasy literature.
I wouldn’t object if you called Spellwright ‘traditional’ or ‘classic’ or ‘high’ fantasy―it's a useful tool for identifying the story as having a megawatt magic-system and being lighter on the brutality. There’s plenty of wonderful stuff happening at this end of the spectrum. As I see it, many of the masters shine brightly-- Tad Williams, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kate Elliot, Terry Brooks, etc etc, and we’ve new supernovas like Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson. There are plenty of writers that fall somewhere in the middle; Robin Hobb and Daniel Abraham brilliantly mix elements of the two.
For the moment at least, I’m comfortable in the classical school. I’m interested in exploring big, flashy ideas about language, disability, and the fundamental mechanisms of biological life. A megawatt magic-system allows me to explore those issues through my character’s stories.
In the books you’ve written, who is you favourite character and why?
Magister Agwu Shannon. With his wit and deft prose style, he makes a formidable investigator into the murder. And I can identify with him as an educator of disabled students.
Your main character misspells any magical text he touches, and you have struggled with dyslexia from a very early age. Is educating people about the condition one of your motivations for writing Spellwright?
No. I try to shine a light on disability, but not any one in particular. As you note, Nicodemus can’t help but misspell magical texts, a condition his world calls ‘cacography.’ It’s analogous but not identical to dyslexia. Nico’s teacher, Magister Shannon can see nothing but magical text. Other characters struggle with conditions similar to epilepsy, idiopathic mental retardation, and Tourette Syndrome. My goal isn’t to create a clinical description of any real condition (though when creating my characters I drew upon the clinical knowledge I’ve gained as a disabled person, a former educator, and a medical student). My goal was to examine, in an earnest and accessible way, what disability can do―bad and good―to one’s psyche, how we define ourselves as enabled or disabled, and how we all struggle with strengths and weakness.
If you could, would you change places with any of your characters?
Certainly not! There’s far too much intrigue, desperation, and danger in my books. Seeing very sick people in the hospital and clinic makes one realize how blessed an unintriguing life can be.
How long did it take you to write Spellwright?
A decade. I started Spellwright in between college classes in 2000. I half-heartedly worked on it for two more years before graduating in 2002. Thereafter I would take stretches of time out to write between moonlighting as an English teacher, a medical writer, a JV football couch, a private tutor, and several less exciting jobs. Somehow I picked up an agent and sold the trilogy (with the stipulation that I rewrite roughly half of the book)…right before matriculating into medical school. The past two years I’ve been attending classes, taking tests, and finishing up the final draft.
What was the hardest part of the book for you to write?
The last five thousand words. In a trilogy, the end of books one and two really have to be done right--coming to a satisfactory end while showing all the great stuff that’s coming in the next book. No need to fear an agonizing cliffhanger from me.
Given that you’re a medical student, when and where do you write?
Whenever I can, wherever I can. I often keep my, very small, laptop in my locker in the med school. During the preclinical years, I would write during my lunch hour and when I’d cut the uninspired classes. Now in a research year, I have large stretches of time free to write. I spend those mostly on my couch, in my pajamas, with an ergonomic keyboard on my lap.
What aspect of world building do you enjoy (or hate) the most?
Dreaming up the language-based magic-system was a pure joy, so was imagining how the physical properties of each language would shape the societies that used them. As to what I hate…timelines are a real bother. There’s a lot of rereading that needs to be done to make sure the chronological logistics of the story work, especially regarding character back stories. The devil’s in the details.
Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?
The phrases “Write about what you love,” and “Write about what you know,” are often tossed around. It’s advice with some value, but also advice with some danger. Honor only those two mandates and you risk producing a story without tension or edge. I’d add a third, “Write about what you fear.” Doing so gives authors an internal, earnest source of tension as the struggle through their story to identify the nature of their fear.