INTRO: Since John Marco’s first interview with sffworld.com, he recently saw publication of The Saints of the Sword, the concluding volume of his critically acclaimed fantasy trilogy Tyrants and Kings which has also been translated in several languages. He also recently switched publishing houses, moving from BantamSpectra to DAW books. In this interview, we discuss The Saints of the Sword, the world of Nar (home to Tyrants and Kings), his next project The Eyes of God and publishing in general. John is a good guy and a great writer who lent us some of his time for the interview below.
Q: One of the themes you touched upon in Saints of the Sword was the idea that people can change or redeem themselves. The changes that Biagio experienced throughout the series were noticeably for the better, in the long run. Conversely, the character of Nicabar was cast as a villainous character up to and including the final volume. The fact that Biagio is a redeemed drug addict is something that we see in the news everyday, which readers can relate to. Biagio even says early in the novel, “Destiny is for the weak; strong men build their own lives.” Is this something that you wanted to convey, that if a person is strong enough they can make their lives better; or if not they only have themselves to blame?
A: Yes, I guess that was what I was saying. As you pointed out, the idea of redemption is the central theme of The Saints of the Sword. After all the war and killing and Machiavellian plots of the first two books, I wanted to soften the tone a bit and show that although people can be horribly scarred mentally, they still have the power to overcome obstacles, do the right thing, and create good lives for themselves. I try not to get preachy in my books, because as I always say no one needs me to tell them that war is hell or that drugs are bad, etc., but we see this everyday in our society-people overcoming terrible pasts or circumstances. And I’m always fascinated by people who do it. They inspire me. So in some small way I wanted to convey that idea in my book. And interestingly, the Biagio character makes his statement about overcoming destiny to a young person, the kind of people who probably need to hear that message most.
Q: Richius Vantran was the main character of The Jackal of Nar, a strong contender for that role (among other characters) in The Grand Design, but in Saints Biagio pretty much stole the spotlight. Is that something you intended, with your soft spot for the villainous characters, or was Biagio’s emergence as the focus of Saints a case of “the story writing itself,” as many writers say? Or maybe a little bit of both?
A: No, Biagio was always intended to be the “main” character of the third book, although even he shares the spotlight with others. I wanted his story to come full circle, because all that you really get of him in the first book is just a glimpse, and in the second book he appears to be nothing but a madman, except for subtle flashes of sanity. But I never really thought of him as a villain in the conventional sense. He’s certainly not good, but he’s not evil either. So in the third book, I wanted to show his better nature, the man underneath all the drug addiction and anger. Some readers have been troubled by this, because they liked him better as a “villain.” I can understand that. Villains are fun, and sometimes when they show their humane side they lose their luster. On the other hand, there were readers who were aching to see Biagio’s decent side, because they knew it was there all along.
As for the story writing itself, I have to say that the third book was fairly easy to write because I knew what I wanted to accomplish. But it wasn’t because the characters took over. I’m happy to say that almost never happens to me. The characters pretty much do what I tell them to do.
Q: Do you think the fact that Richius as a somewhat flawed (or less than perfect) hero, allows the reader to accept Biagio more openly as the central character in Saints?
A: Absolutely. Anyone who’s read the books knows that there aren’t really any heroes in them, at least not in the conventional use of the word. Certainly there are characters that are better and kinder than others, but even the best of them have flaws and sometimes do things out of less than noble ideas, like selfishness. So yes, I think that made it much easier for readers to except Biagio as the central character in Saints. In fact, I’ve not gotten one comment to the contrary. Everyone seems to be very pleased with the move.
Q: Military history is something you have said you enjoy reading about, and it shows in this series. Have you or has anybody close to you served in the military? If so, how has this helped you to entrench the readers in the battle scenes you write?
A: I’ve known a number of people who’ve served in the military, and their stories and experiences have always fascinated me. And they don’t have to be stories about war, either. Even the humdrum, everyday existence of the military interests me. So to be honest, I’m not sure how this has helped me in my writing. Like everything, it just kind of seems its way into the stories. Every writer takes bits and pieces from their memories and plugs them into their work, and a lot of times it’s on such an unconscious level
that you can’t even recognize them.
I’ve been lucky enough to be complimented on the battle scenes that I write, and that always makes me proud because I’ve never been in battle before (thankfully) and because of that I can’t possibly describe it accurately. But I do my best to put myself in the mindset of the soldiers, try to picture what it would be like, then put it on paper. And I have a lot of great writers to take my cue from, and try to emulate. If I can give even a small sense of reality to these scenes, I’m satisfied.
Q: The magical elements in The Jackal of Nar were an important issue, while magic in Design was not as central to the story. In Saints, the magic comes back as part of the story and the same can be said of Richius; he was the central character in Jackal, was a large character in the cast of Design and his story comes full circle in Saints. Is this cyclical or recurring aspect of history something you wanted to highlight in Tyrants and Kings?
A: I think what I was trying to avoid more than anything else was to become too predictable; I didn’t want all of the books to be the same, so I made a real effort to introduce important new characters in each book, while still bringing the whole story of Richius and his country of Aramoor to a close. As for the “lite” touch on the magic, that’s just something that the story seemed to dictate. It was never going to be heavy on magic. I just wanted enough sorcery to tell the story, sort of a backdrop for the overall tale. In the end, I was happy to see magical elements make a small resurgence in the third book, because I think it gives the trilogy a feeling of closure.
Q: One of the aspects of T & K that is refreshing is that the line between good and evil is as about as blurry as a snowstorm, when many of the fantasies have the stark contrast between good and evil. Did you set out to say, especially with Biagio, that good and evil can be more a matter of perspective?
A: I’m not sure that I set out to say that specifically, but rather that just happens to be my view of the world. To be honest, I don’t think I could write a story with starkly black and white characters, because that’s just not how things are in reality, and it would bore me. I wouldn’t know how to make a character like that interesting. It’s an interesting concept though, because if I thought about it I would have to admit that good and evil really are a matter of perspective. There’s always both sides in every war, and that’s what really interests me, and what I try to explore.
Q: While T&K did have closure, there really seems to be more that can be told of the world of Nar. With the success of T&K, do you see returning to the world of Nar, perhaps as stand-alone novels, another series or short stories?
A: The world of Nar is a pretty big place, and it’s a great template for stories. I did leave room at the end of Saints for more stories, because I’d like to return there someday and pickup where I left off. But to be honest, I have no immediate plans for anymore T&K stories. I wouldn’t mind doing a short story set in Nar if the right venue popped up, but I don’t foresee doing any more books about Nar right now. There’s just too much on the horizon that I’d like to do first.
Q: That said, do you see yourself writing mainly “fantasy” novels or would you try your hand at “science fiction” novels or short stories.
A: Science fiction is probably a long way off for me. I enjoy science fiction, but I’m not sure if I have the hand for it. When I do branch off from fantasy, it will probably be gradually. I’d like to write an historical fantasy, for instance, or perhaps a modern fable type of fantasy like the Richard Bach books. But before I do that there are still a number of “traditional” fantasy stories that I’d like to tell.
Q: You have achieved critical success, in the form of the BN Voyager award and making it to, among others, SFSite and BN.com’s “Best of Year” lists, readers have enjoyed your books in terms of sales. If/How does this affect your approach to your new project?
A: Well, it makes the bar a bit higher I suppose. I do my best with every book, and I can honestly say that I feel myself getting a bit better each time, so I hope that my new project for DAW will be well received. It’s similar to Tyrants and Kings in some ways, so I don’t think it will alienate anyone. And I’m very happy with the way it turned out, so I’m hopeful that it will do well. Honestly, though, I don’t think any success that I’ve had has really changed the way I approach things. I think that would be a mistake, because it’s simply impossible to please everyone, and in the end you have to write for yourself. The writers that follow their heart and write the type of books that they truly want to write seem to fare the best in my mind. Not sales-wise, perhaps, but critically and creatively. That’s one of the reasons that I finished up the T&K series in three books. There are always more stories that could be written, but it’s good to know when to get off the stage.
Q: What are a few (2 or 3) books, both in and out of the speculative fiction genre, that you have enjoyed recently or are looking forward to reading?
A: There are always books that I want to read, but finding the time can be tough. Right now I have The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman sitting on my desk, and I’m looking forward to starting it. The new Tad Williams book will be out soon, and I’m looking foward to that, too, along with the next J.V. Jones book.
Out of the genre, I’ve been mostly reading non-fiction. I have my eye on an upcoming book about Richard the Lionheart that looks interesting, so I guess I’ll add that to my ever-growing list of books to read.
Q: You have said in earlier interviews how helpful the internet has been to you as a writer. How do you view electronic publishing wherein you pay a fee to a publisher to list your book amongst their titles and get an ISBN for the book. From your experience and/or what some authors you know have said, would you recommend this publishing route to unpublished authors?
A: I really wouldn’t recommend it, at least not yet. I think the whole electronic publishing business is too untested yet for a new author to go this route. In time there may be no stigma toward publishing work online, but right now anything that an author pays for still smacks of vanity publishing, even though that’s not quite what it is. This will all probably change in the future, but for now I think the best thing for a serious new author to do is to try the traditional publishing routes first.
Q: By traditional I would assume you mean going to publishers like DAW or Bantam with your manuscript. Would you suggest a new writer getting an agent first or simply submit the book to publishers?
A: This is a point of endless debate, but I come down on the side of trying to find an agent first. It’s not strictly necessary, but there just aren’t that many publishers anymore, and they are all swamped with things to read. And many of them won’t read unsolicited manuscripts anyway. I think a new writer’s chances are better if they can find an agent who’s enthusiastic about their work.
Q: What prompted the change to DAW?
A: There were a couple of reasons for the change, but mostly DAW just seemed like the right place for The Eyes of God. It’s a big book, and DAW has a lot of good experience with big fantasy novels. They were willing to give me the room I wanted to write the book without size restrictions, and that’s very important to me. Also, it’s good for a writer to find the right publishing house, and when I met with Betsy Wollheim at DAW we were really in sync with what I wanted to accomplish, not just with The Eyes of God but with future books as well. They’re a relatively small publisher and privately owned, so they have a lot of flexibility. I’m really enjoying working with them so far.
Q: Will this be a hardcover?
A: Yes it will, and I’m very happy about that. I get emails all the time from readers asking for hardcover editions of my books, and I’ve always had to send them to my British publisher for those. It will be nice have a hardcover edition in the U.S.
Q: Now that you have successfully finished the Tyrants and Kings trilogy, can you give us an idea of what we can look forward to in The Eyes of God? More militaristic fantasy or a change to something with more of a classical magical feel? How many volumes will the series encompass?
A: The Eyes of God isn’t a drastic departure from the Tyrants and Kings books, but it’s different enough to attract some new readers, I think. For one thing, there isn’t a big focus on battles and military maneuvers. There is some of that in the book, because that’s something that I enjoy writing about, but the emphasis this time is a bit more on magic, and on a quest. Although even the quest portion of the plot has something of a twist to it, because the quest isn’t the story. Rather, it’s the aftermath of the quest that’s really the thrust of the book, and the consequences of what happened. There are a lot of characters in it, a fair amount of magic, and a mystical group of people known as the Inhumans, who are slowly revealed through the course of the novel.
At this point I’m not sure how many books there will be in the series. It’s not that I’m deliberately leaving it open ended, because I hate books like that and always try to give each one a genuine sense of closure. But I’d like this new world of mine to be something that I can return to for years to come. That’s why The Eyes of God stands on its own, and any subsequent books about the Inhumans will stand on their own as well. I can say that there will be at least one book to follow Eyes of God, the idea for which are already kicking around in my head.
Q: That sounds refreshing. So often the stories focus on the quest, the hero completes the quest or trials end of story. That is a tride and true formula for success that fantasy readers enjoy. However; often I, and probably many readers, want to know what happens after the quest is completed or the war is finished, there is always that curiousity. When can we expect to see The Eyes of God on bookshelves?
A: I’ve been discussing this with my editor at DAW, and we’re hoping to have it out early in 2002. It’s also been sold to publishers in the U.K. and Germany, but I don’t know when they intend to publish it. Probably around the same time as the U.S. release, I’d guess. And to close, let me thank you for doing this interview. I’ve enjoyed it a great deal.
Visit John Marco’s website at http://www.tyrantsandkings.com