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Ryan Dawson interview
Ryan Z. Dawson in a freelance author and conlanger. He created a full and working language for his first published work, The King's Eagle, and has translated a number of children's classics into it since. He is also a musician with more than one-thousand original songs and twenty albums to his credit. He worked as a reporter for his high school newspaper for two years.
When did you first discover speculative fiction and how did it affect you?
I wouldn't call The King's Eagle speculative fiction, necessarily. It takes place on Earth hundreds of years after an apocalyptic event, but that event isn't the focus of the story. It's just set dressing. The King's Eagle is straight fantasy, as far as I'm concerned. I am among the many fantasy authors who came to the genre because of Tolkien. My dad read me The Hobbit when I was very young, and he talked a lot about how great The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings were. For my money, Tolkien is still outshining everyone. We're all either trying to distance ourselves from what he wrote or living in his shadow trying to make our own place. He redefined fantasy, and the empire he established is still as strong as it ever was.
What are your three favorite books and/or authors and why?
My top three books are Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Paradise Lost by John Milton, and Huxley's Brave New World . I like thinking about what humans are capable of and what makes us who we are. I like exploring the ways in which we can break and the lies we tell ourselves to cope with pain. Heart of Darkness and Brave New World really opened up my philosophy a lot, and they were both part of my first steps into a new way of asking myself about people. They presented me with new questions, which always feels good. I learned things from them, and it's always nice to see that there's more to learn and new roads to walk to reach the heart of the human condition. I had to read Paradise Lost several times to really get a good handle on it. Miltonian dialect is a real challenge, and I wasn't prepared for it, and dealing with it was exciting. When I started to grasp it, I realized that the story is a work of genius. I found the images of Chaos, Sin, and Death particularly striking. Paradise Lost continues to be a rich source of inspiration for me. I also love Neil Gaiman's Sandman series of comics. They are exceptionally well-crafted, and they stand head-and-shoulders above other comic books in terms of story.
What is the hardest part of writing speculative fiction? How do you cope with that?
I write what I like to call mirror fantasy : I try to project one person's internal battles onto an external screen, so to speak. I want my characters' struggles with external forces to mirror the struggles they face within themselves. The hardest part of that is giving the external forces weight and life of their own. You don't want the analogy to be too obvious, so you have to have just as interesting a story going on outside the character as you have going on inside the character. This is something that I saw in Stephen King as a child - specifically in his book Cujo . It was ostensibly about a dog with rabies, but there was this supernatural plot underneath it, and I loved the way the two explanations for the conflict coexisted. That's a difficult balance to achieve, and King is a master of it.
What are you working on now?
My next book, Melidora, is in the hands of my editor right now. I plan on publishing it this year. The story I'm currently working on is called The Death of Alan Shade. It begins when the main character finds himself in Graveworld - the land of the dead - and discovers that he's a necromancer. It's a darkish fantasy story about a man in his thirties whose life has been defined by death and grief. He's shut himself away from the world for a long time because some very bad things have happened to him, and the story is about his finally coming to grips with those things and learning to be endemic to himself. That's the theme of the book: being a native of your own head - feeling at home with your thoughts, your fears, and all the forces that have had some part in making you. It's my longest work so far.
Every speculative fiction writer specializes in something ? universes, creatures, languages, technology, magic, etc. What are your specialties?
From that list of examples, languages would probably be my specialty. I am constantly amazed by language. I devised a language called Imnura for The King's Eagle . That constructed language (or conlang) arose from a small naming and phonotactics dictionary I developed so that all the characters in the book would have names that sounded like they came from the same tongue. I don't like when fantasy writers create names by arbitrarily recombining vague Germanic sounds, though I can see why not every fantasy writer feels the desire to construct a language - or even a simple phonology - for every new story they write. I just like it better when characters' names seem to have weight and meaning. It seems that I have something of a facility for learning languages. I think my love of language comes from my love of sound. I'm a musician, too, and I play by ear. I've been playing piano since I was 6, and I also play guitar and bass. I have a sensory integration problem as well: certain sounds and physical sensations that most people have no problem with are very upsetting to me, so I generally think a lot about sound. This leads naturally, I think, to a fascination with language.
What are some of the values you want your fans to take away from your novels?
I write a lot about characters who are dealing with trauma and isolation. I try to heal them by putting them in situations that force them to fling themselves far outside their comfort zones. I'd like my readers to see, in my writing, how big the world is, that hope is infinite, and that love really should be the cornerstone of every human relationship. I like people best when they work together, and I like the world best when I can see just how small I am compared to it. So basically: love people, love yourself, be where you are right now and own what you do. Don't hide from yourself or push people away. There's no reason to worry about being perfect, because you never will. I hope some of that comes out in my writing.
What are your professional and/or personal goals for the next decade?
I'd like to start making enough money as a writer that my wife and I can quit our day jobs. I'd like to publish the grammar for my conlang, Imnura, and to write more books set in the world of The King's Eagle . Of course, I plan on publishing Melidora soon, finishing Alan Shade , and getting to work editing a fourth book that is finished but which I haven't looked at for a long time. I'll continue writing fiction, poems, and songs, and I'll publish Imnura translations of popular works to get the language out there.
Since Speculative Fiction is often interwoven with spirituality (myths, legends, science, etc), please describe your personal spiritual path and how it is reflected in your writing.
I'm an atheist, but I'm fascinated by religion. I like to think about what religion is, why it's so important to people, and how it behaves when confronted with scientific and philosophical challenges. I don't consider myself spiritual; in place of spirituality, you could say that I just have philosophy. Some of my questions about religious beliefs arise in my stories, but I try not to make them the focus. I'm not interested in furthering any agenda. I just want to tell interesting stories. My personal philosophies come out in my writing all the time, though.
Conventions ? do you attend?
I don't go to conventions. I don't really have a lot of interest in them. I also don't really have friends, and I have some social problems that keep me away from big gatherings. By that, I mean that people terrify me. I have kind of an avoidant personality, so doing things with groups of people is not a very attractive proposition. That said, I did go to a horror convention for a few hours once. It was hectic, but I got a lot of autographs. I was really only there to meet some of the many actors who have played Jason Voorhees. I didn't go in costume or anything. I don't think I'm really interested in that, but I did admire some of the elaborate costumes that the other con-goers wore.
Do you have a motto?
Not really. Maybe, don't adopt a motto.
What advice and/or warnings do you have for burgeoning writers?
There are three things you absolutely must do if you want to write seriously. First: read. Read everything you can get your hands on. It's OK to have pet genres, but it's important to read things that are challenging. You can't write if you're not willing to be a little afraid. If you're very busy, read for five minutes a day. Surely you have five minutes. If not, read for three or two. If you decide that you just don't have time to read, then it's going to be even harder to find time to write. You won't have a well to return to when your inspiration runs dry either, and it will. So read as much as you can and read things that challenge you. Second: you have to write. This seems obvious, and it is. Write a few hundred words a day, even if it's crap. Writing is a habit. You have to do it a lot to figure out what kind of writer you are, and you can't learn to trust your instincts if you don't explore them. Lastly, you need to throw away any rosy notions you might have about making a living as any kind of artist. Becoming a full-time artist is going into business, and business is about money. Being a professional writer is 5% writing your story and 95% selling your brand. This can be difficult, soul-crushing work, especially if you go into it genuinely believing that good stories sell themselves.
You canít tell a book by its cover; however, you must SELL a book by its cover. Tell us about your book covers and how they came about.
The cover art for The King's Eagle was done by a very talented artist named Ryan Valle. He is very professional, and working with him was a dream. I found him on DeviantART. I had a general idea of what I wanted, and we did a little brainstorming from there. I'm not a graphic artist, and I don't know anything about creating interesting visuals. Words are my forte, so I left a lot of the work up to Ryan, who did an excellent job.
Do you follow specific blogs, tweets, or other column-type formats? Which ones and why?
I don't really follow any blogs, and I don't tweet often. I might look at Twitter once every two months. I just never got into the swing of reading blogs, and I'm not sure why. For the most part, I find social media boring.
How do you feel about movie conversions of books and novelizations of movies?
It can be done well. Movies can do things books can't, and vice versa. If you want to get deep into a story, a book is your best bet. A movie has a time limit, but books don't. They walk avenues that movies don't for the sake of brevity. And movies can establish something complex with a single shot - something that a book might take a thousand words to do.
If one of your books becomes a movie, who would you want cast into which roles?
I've thought a lot about this, and I'm still not really sure. The King's Eagle doesn't have any Caucasians in it, which might make casting problematic for an American production. For Ayira, I might cast Korean actress Kim Hee-Seon. She's great, and I kind of based Ayira's appearance on her, too. Wentworth Miller might work for Silverlock, though you could probably put any fairly fit individual in a white wig and beard to play the part. Tom Hanks could probably play Silverlock well, as he's incredibly versatile. I think Diego Luna might be good, too.
What was the oddest experience youíve had selling your books?
The whole experience has been odd, really. The King's Eagle is the first book I've published (though it's not the first one I've written), and the experience of getting out and trying to market myself and kiss up to people has been pretty surreal. The publishing world is weird, and it's full of people who want weird things - at least as far as I've seen. Trying to explain to people why they should care about my book has been difficult, because my first impulse is to say, Because it's a good book, and I worked extremely hard to make it that way. That isn't a good enough explanation, of course, and people don't really want explanations anyway. What they want is a pitch - a song and dance number. Writing a good book is small potatoes compared to making a good production of selling yourself. My experiences shopping The King's Eagle around - along with my experiences in the music industry - have taught me that what's in your package isn't nearly as important as what's ON your package. As you said, you must SELL a book by its cover. This was a real shock for me, and I'm still not totally acclimated to it yet.
Do you belong to a writers group or any other support/hobby group? What, how long and why?
I belong to the Fiction Writers Group on Facebook. I joined because I heard that it was a good idea to join some kind of writers group, but I generally find that I don't get a lot out of talking to other writers. I suspect that this is because of my social issues. Writers groups aren't for everyone, but it can be helpful to interface with other people who are trying to do the same thing you are.
The King's Eagle, 2012, Creatspace, ISBN:9781477652671
Social media info
Personal profile: ryanzdawson
Author page: rzdawson
Conlang blog: imnuralanguage
Goodreads: Ryan Z. Dawson
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