Zen and the art of fantasy writing
Fantasy Authors Aidan Harte and Brian Staveley discuss what it means to build a world all your own.
Imagined settings allow for an author to shape and create a world in his own vision—and yet the incredible world building that goes into these novels is often inspired by people and places very much of this world.
Aidan Harte, author of Irenicon: Book One of the Wave Trilogy (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books; $26.99; available now) and Brian Staveley, author of The Emperor’s Blades; Book One of The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne (Tor Books; $27.99; available now), both set their novels in a world both different and similar to our own world.
Irenicon finds Sofia Scaligeri, the soon to be Contessa of Rasenna, struggling to bring her literally divided city together with the story set in an alternate history of Florentine times. The emperor of Annur is dead in The Emperor’s Blades leaving his three children, a daughter and two sons, to unmask his assassins and to find their own way down their life-paths.
After reading one another’s novels, Brian and Aidan got together to discuss how they developed their worlds and how their worlds reflect their own experiences, the artistic process itself, writers who have influenced them, and why As I lay Dying is an excellent example of why writing less is often more.
The conversation begins with Aidan, who is curious about Brian’s incorporation of Zen into his fantasy novel.
Aidan asks Brian
I want to ask you about Zen and the art of Fantasy writing. It's a neat trick to convey frustration without being frustrating. Over the course of The Emperor’s Blades, the brothers Kaden and Valyn are broken apart and reassembled pretty mercilessly. Valyn’s story is kept ticking with a mystery to solve and great action sequences but Kaden’s was trickier to write I’d say. You keep the reader amused by driving the poor chap to distraction.
Perhaps that why it appealed to me. I could somewhat relate. When first thinking of Irenicon, I was studying sculpture in a classical atelier, which is like ninja academy for realists. They give short shrift to the contemporary mantra that everyone’s an artist or the notion of sitting around waiting for epiphanies.
It was charcoal drawing in the morning, sculpting in the afternoon, pencil drawing in the evening. Go to bed with an anatomy book. Sleep. And repeat. I’ll always remember these incredibly precise charcoal studies we used to do over eight weeks. After a week, you're looking into flights home. After a month, you've got the thousand yards stare, and dreams about tonal transitions and your model’s knee caps.
The teachers are not as harsh as Tan is to Kaden but they don't pull punches either. You spend a couple of days drawing a leg and they appear like Moses ascending Sinai, study your drawing for thirty seconds and leave it and you in shreds: that's too small, too big, too long, too short. So you proceed, eradicating the obvious mistakes till you're left with subtle ones.
As the increments get smaller and smaller, people in the class go crazy. Tears, arguments, singing and one-handed pushups. And when the last week rolls around, it's better than anything you could have done before but all you can see are the mistakes. The next day, you put up a blank piece of paper and start over…
I tried to convey something of the agony and ecstasy of training with Sofia and Water Style. I know you’ve taught philosophy but you must do something more physical than the dialectic method to capture Kaden’s and Valyn’s struggles so vividly.
Brian responds to Aidan
It’s probably no surprise that I really dug the Water Style passages in Irenicon. We both seem to draw pretty heavily on Taoist thought, although we come at it from slightly different angles.
You’ve really explored the hydraulic aspects, both in the twisting of the river itself (a perversion of the power of water) and in the Water Style (an embrace of that power). I’m reminded of certain passages from the Tao Te Ching (all the following translations from Jonathan Star):
“The best way to live/ is to be like water/ For water benefits all things/ and goes against none of them/ It provides for all people/ and even cleanses those places/ a man is loath to go”
“Rivers and streams are born of the ocean/ All creation is born of Tao/ Just as all water flows back to become the ocean/ All creation flows back to become Tao”
In The Emperor’s Blades, on the other hand, I drew more heavily on the Taoist interest in emptiness, vacancy. Another famous passage from the Tao Te Ching reads:
“Thirty spokes of a wheel all join at a common hub
yet only the hole at the center
allows the wheel to spin
Clay is molded to form a cup
yet only the space within
allows the cup to hold water
Walls are joined to make a room
yet only by cutting out a door and a window
can one enter the room and live there
Thus, when a thing has existence alone
it is mere dead-weight
Only when it has wu, does it have life.”
Of course, the potentiality of emptiness and the power of water complement each other. Without emptiness, water won’t flow, and if nothing ever moves in empty space, its potential is never realized. Sofia, of course, learns from the nuns to master the power of water, while Kaden, with his monks, is still trying to achieve the prerequisite emptiness.
Both of them, however, have to give up crucial parts of themselves before they can succeed, and it’s here that I think your experience in the atelier really allowed you to dig deep into Sofia’s training; there’s no point in coddling a pupil when the whole point is to destroy or carve away certain aspects of that pupil.
In my case, a lot of the personal inspiration for Kaden’s training came from my experience adventure racing. I’ve written a short post on the topic here. Especially in the multi-day races, it’s almost impossible (at least for me) to contemplate the full scope of the unpleasantness lying ahead. In fact, if I start thinking too much about anything -- the fact that my clothes are soaked, or that I’ve been eating nothing but power bars for two days, or that we need to paddle some miserable river all night long -- I’d just quit.
The key to keeping going is stopping thinking, cutting out all the parts of the mind that try to plan and prepare. Of course, Kaden’s training is orders of magnitude more serious, but then, I don’t live in a remote mountain monastery at the end of the world. Yet.
It seems as though there are several paths to the mastery of Water Style in Irenicon. I’m curious if you (or the characters) see one of these as the “true” path, or are they all equally legitimate? How crucial is the suffering to the mastery? Do you think the suffering is central, or only incidental to the ultimate goal? Seems like a crucial question, as some characters are more willing to suffer than others...
Aidan responds to Brian
To compare the herculean ordeal of Adventure Racing with a measly marathon would be criminal. But it’s all I’ve got so I’m going to go ahead and do that. I’m training for my first and, brother, I got the fear. When I think of how grueling ten miles is, when I envisage what twenty six will be, terror, sweat-wringing bowel-mangling terror sets my knees rattling like castanets. All I can tell myself is that suffering now is money in the bank come race day.
But you asked if suffering’s necessary in Irenicon and if there’s one true path to mastering Water Style? I was raised Catholic so I’m fighting the urge to say yes on both counts. Water Style is about living in a deeper reality. Suffering is incidental, but for 99% of us, imperfect clay that we are, it’s a necessary step. We all know people who make the impossible look effortless, but they’ve just done the time when we weren’t looking. Michelangelo, in a moment of uncharacteristic humility, said “If people knew how hard I worked for my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful after all.”
So whatever gets you there, gets you there, but I’m suspect of short cuts. Aren’t you?
We’re hardwired to take them, but in life you pay for everything. If enlightenment was as easy as perceiving that deeper reality, hell, we could all drop Acid tomorrow and live in nirvana. The truth is that without control – something Sofia lacks – it would be a one-way ticket to hell. She has to subdue her anger before she can understand Water but Bernoulli’s method is to subdue the world, to brutalise the element until it gives up its secrets. It’s an engineer’s solution, efficient and pitiless.
Sofia is way too hot-headed for that, but it’s also more dramatically satisfying to show the hero sweating, right? Kung fu films have committed many crimes against plausibility over the years but one thing they get right is that skill takes sweat. Western filmmakers think it's just a matter of hiring Hong Kong choreographers but in their rush to cut to the chase they omit those crucial scenes where the neophyte screws up repeatedly. That’s the Juice, man!
I shout way too much at traffic to pretend I’m Taoist, but it always seemed common sense that there are two sides to everything. I don’t know if we’re living through the twilight of Democracy but it can’t be healthy that our political discourse has descended into a shouting match. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could step back, take a breath and realise that rigid dogmas are less than useless use in a mutable world, and that if that if you don’t know what to do, it’s OK to do nothing. (It’s also a slackers’ mantra. I like to put my feet up and tell my wife I’m exercising WuWei. Never works...)
Speaking of Yin and Yang, the prologue of The Emperor’s Blade leaves a sinister aftertaste, and I thought it was brave that you only gradually gave it context; it and the finale give the impression that the vaniate can have a diabolical application too. The West has a fixation on rigidly binary values, black hat/white hat, but Eastern philosophy seems way more relaxed with the notion the same thing can be good or evil depending on who’s using it and why.
Brian responds to Aidan
I’m curious, Aidan, about your handling of scene length. There are a lot of areas where you and I seem to be working in the same vein, but I think we diverge quite sharply there. I noticed almost straightaway that you’re not afraid to have scenes that last just a paragraph or two; we get a glimpse of someone running or fighting or just looking, and then we get a little white space and we’re on to the next one. I often find myself reluctant to do that. I feel as though if I find the right scene, that I can dwell in for a while usually at least half a chapter, often a whole chapter, sometimes several chapters.
Each method has its strengths, I’d say, and each its weaknesses. Longer scenes, for instance, run the risk of dragging on. Everyone knows that feeling of finishing a chapter, flipping through the first pages of the next, and thinking, “Oh, God… it’s like thirty pages.” On the other hand, I sometimes feel as though short scenes feel more scattered.
Of course, the great writer of the short scene is Shakespeare, who’s never afraid to toss off twenty or thirty lines before switching scenes, so you’re in good company. Short scenes are also (usually) the territory of modern movies, where it’s rare to get a five-minute stretch with the same characters in the same place talking about the same thing. One reason I love Tarantino is that he DOES give us long scenes like that.
So, as I said, I’m not sure we really disagree, but I’d be curious to hear your thinking on scene length. How much of your decision-making here is even conscious, and how much are you just following the story where it leads?
Aidan responds to Brian
That channel-hopping pace comes partly from the cartoon show I directed. Also, as the first half of Irenicon is a kind of gangster story, I was aiming for a clipped hard-boiled voice. That said, a constant pace, however quick, becomes repetitious eventually.
Looking back, there are times when I applied the When in doubt, Cut rule too mechanically. I learned to vary the rhythm in the next book The Warring States. Confidence, I find, is key when it comes to style. Faukner’s As I lay Dying is an excellent example. The brief length of the chapters and the way that they switch between narrators without warning is, initially, deeply irritating, but once you’ve absorbed the cadence, it becomes mesmeric.
Another area where we differ is the invented texts of our respective worlds. The Emperor’s Blades make occasional reference to the sage Hendran, a cross between Sun Tzu and Dirty Harry, but it’s very subtle. I go the whole Meta hog with footnoted chapters of windy gibbonesque prose penned by a pompous historian. The interruption of the main narrative drove some reviewers apoplectic but I’m entirely unrepentant. Do you enjoy this kind of thing in your Fantasy, or is it just post-modern smart arsery?
Brian responds to Aidan
I completely agree about As I Lay Dying. I love that book -- taught it for many years, despite occasional protests that it wasn’t “a 10th grade book.” Whatever that means. That’s a great example of short scenes (and chapters) that 1. pack a real wallop in their own right and 2. cohere to form a very convincing and structurally satisfying whole.
And I hear you about cutting. I sometimes find that I end after a vigorous round of revisions I end up with these little orphan scenelets -- two or three paragraphs that seem important but don’t really play well with the larger narrative flow. I’m often unsure what to do with them, and they almost always get the axe. Sometimes, though, I’m able to graft them in to some other dialogue, description, or action.
The subject of invented texts -- very, very tricky. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that Dune sort of set the gold standard for this sort of thing -- great world-building and exposition at the start of each chapter, very dense passages that never felt (at least to me) ponderous or overly didactic. I see you working in exactly that tradition.
It’s something I considered long and hard with The Emperor’s Blades. I rejected it, not because I don’t like it, but because I thought I’d screw it up. I couldn’t decide whether all the quotes would come from a single text (which wouldn’t really work, because the three siblings don’t have a shared text) or whether I should move between multiple different texts (which seemed like it might feel too scattered). The fact that you stick to a single historian and that we get to meet that historian really worked for me. Someday I’d like to try the technique, but it’s just not happening with these novels.
Thanks so much to Aidan Harte and Brian Stavely for letting us listen in on their conversation!
About Aidan Harte
Aidan Harte was born in Kilkenny, studied sculpture at the Florence Academy of Art, and currently works as a sculptor in Dublin. His bronzes are currently on display in prestigious art galleries in Mayfair and Dublin. He has also worked in animation and TV, and in 2006 created the show Skunk Fu, which has appeared on several channels around the world, including the Cartoon Channel.
IRENICON is published by Jo Fletcher Books (an imprint of Quercus). It is the first book in The Wave Trilogy.
You can purchase copies of Irenicon here
About Brian Stavely
Photo: Laura Swoyer
Brian Staveley is the author of The Emperor’s Blades, first book of the epic fantasy trilogy, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, which released in January 2014 from Tor Books. Brian has taught literature, religion, history, and philosophy, all subjects that influence his novels, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He works as an editor for Antilever Press, and has published poetry and essays, both in print and on-line. He lives in Vermont with his wife and young son, and divides his time between running trails, splitting wood, writing, and baby-wrangling.
You can purchase copies of The Emperor’s Blades here
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