Interview with David B. Coe

Patrick has talked to David B. Coe about The LonTobyn Chronicle among other things.

For the benefit of those of us new to your work, without giving too much away, give us a taste of the story that is the LonTobyn Chronicle.

David B. Coe: The LonTobyn Chronicle, very simply, describes the first contact between two societies — one of them having magic but no technology, the other having advanced technology but no magic. The magical land, Tobyn-Ser, is protected by an Order of mages who derive their powers from psychic connections to birds of prey. The Order comes under attack from agents of the technological land (Lon-Ser) who wish to conquer Tobyn-Ser and take control of its natural resources. A group of mages, led by a young man named Jaryd, must overcome the apathy of a land that has grown too comfortable with its magic and find some accommodation with the people of Lon-Ser. There’s a bit of intrigue, a couple of romances, lots of action — I like to think that it’s a fun story. But it also has some ecological themes that I take quite seriously and that mirror some of the environmental issues currently at play in our own world.

Same as the first question, but in regards to the Winds of the Forelands series.

DC: Winds of the Forelands tells the story of a young spoiled prince named Tavis who is in line to become king of the land of Eibithar. Before he can take the throne, though, he’s falsely accused of a horrific murder. In trying to prove his innocence and capture the one who actually committed the crime, Tavis uncovers a plot to destroy his realm and its neighbors. He has to win back his place in the line of royal ascension and combat the conspiracy, before his realm and all the Forelands descend into chaos and civil war. The magic system in the Forelands is racially based — there are two races. One, the Eandi, is strong physically, blessed with fairly long life, but possesses no magic. The Qirsi, on the other hand, are frail, almost sickly, with yellow eyes, white hair, and pale, almost translucent skin. But the Qirsi wield powerful magics that allow them to glean the future, shape matter, speak with animals, raise mists and winds, and bend others to their will. Like the LonTobyn books, Winds of the Forelands has lots of intrigue, a murder mystery, romance, betrayal. But it also deals with serious matters of race and prejudice that have become especially trenchant in the days and months since 9/11, as our society grapples with issues of racial profiling and stereotyping.

Is there a character that you particularly enjoy/enjoyed writing? Why is that? By the same token, is there a character that you absolutely don’t like writing about? For what reason?

DC: In a way, I like all my characters, even the “bad” ones. In fact, at times evil characters are more fun to write about than the good guys. That said, there are a few characters who I especially like. In the LonTobyn books, I particularly enjoyed writing about Orris and Melyor. Orris was a mage who started out kind of obnoxious; I wasn’t crazy about him at first. But midway through Children of Amarid, the first book of the series, he suffers a terrible loss and has to overcome it in order to prevail against the bad guys. And as Orris struggled to come to grips with his tragedy, I started to like him — so much so, in fact, that I ended up making him the lead character of the second book in the series, The Outlanders. Originally I had intended to send Jaryd on a long adventure (the details of which I’ll skip so as to keep out any spoilers) but I sent Orris instead. Melyor is a woman who lives in Lon-Ser. She’s an outlaw, and she really kicks butt, if you don’t mind my saying so. But she’s also very bright and thoughtful, and her loyalties are tested by events in the second and third books. My favorite characters in the Winds of the Forelands books are probably the two lead characters — Tavis and his Qirsi friend, Grinsa. As I said before, Tavis starts out as a spoiled brat of a noble and is forced to mature after all the stuff he’s put through (as you can see, this is kind of a recurring theme for me). Grinsa is, in many ways, Tavis’s mentor, who forces the kid to see himself for who and what he is. Their interaction was a lot of fun to write, especially as the series has gone on and Tavis has started to grow up and become a more sympathetic character. I can’t say that there are any characters I hate to write. As I said, even the evil guys are fun. And if they weren’t, that would come through to my readers and make them utterly unreadable. I don’t like to draw my characters in pure black and white. I prefer shades of grey — understandable villains and dark heroes. This is especially evident in my more recent books, and I think it marks my growth as an artist that I feel more and more comfortable creating characters who are more ambiguous and difficult to label.

What role does magic play in both series? How does magic work in both universes?

DC: Magic is a crucial element of both series, in that, without the use of magic, the people I create could not achieve what they need to in order to prevail. But magic has to have its limits and it has to carry a cost or else it will take over a series or a book. In the LonTobyn books, mages are dependent on the psychic bonds they form with their familiars, which are usually hawks or owls. Well, that means that their magic taxes not only the mage, but also the bird. So they can only use so much power before both mage and familiar are exhausted. And also, birds of prey only live so long, and so mages go through periods of time when they are without a familiar — it’s called being unbound. These are times of uncertainty for a mage, when they can’t do all the things they’re used to doing and when their death would mean eternal unrest (thanks to an ancient curse that figures prominently in the story). For the Qirsi in my Winds of the Forelands books, the magic carries an even more direct cost. Their magic is sort of psionic, i.e., based in mind power. An act of magic is, in effect, as simple as forming a thought. But the Qirsi live short lives, and every act of magic shortens the life of the sorcerer even more. As I put it in one passage, using magic is like bleeding one’s life away.

How long did it take you to write the LonTobyn Chronicle? What would you say was the hardest part of the entire process? Where did you get the initial idea that drove you to write the series in the first place?

DC: The LonTobyn books were the product of about five years work, but in part they took that long because my life kept on intruding on my art. During that time, my wife and I built our house and had our first child. I also lost both my parents during the writing of the series, which set me back several months. That was undoubtedly the hardest part. Dealing with first one of them being sick and then the other — it was really hard to focus on fantasy stories when the realities of my life were so dark and sad. But the last thing they would have wanted was for me to give up on my dream because of them, and in many respects the emotions of that period made me a better, stronger person, and, by extension, I suppose, a better artist as well. The idea for the LonTobyn books had been percolating in my head for literally a dozen years. I guess the characters came first — Jaryd, Baden, the evil mage (whose name I won’t reveal!) and his pursuit of immortality. Later, I had an epiphany about the magic system I wanted to create, and from there the rest of the plot line came pretty quickly.

The LonTobyn Chronicle won the William L. Crawford Award, which goes to the best first fantasy series. What does winning this award mean to you?

DC: It was a wonderful honor. I was once an academic — I have a Ph.D. in history — and though I chose a different career path, I have an enormous amount of respect for the academic process — the pursuit of knowledge, the give and take of ideas. The Crawford is awarded by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts (IAFA), an academic group devoted to the study of fantasy art, literature, and cinema. To be recognized in this way by experts in the field was incredibly humbling.

Do you believe that being an historian brings a different perspective to your novels?

DC: I think that my historical background gives me an understanding of human social, economic, political, and cultural development that has been invaluable as I develop the worlds in which I set my books. And actually, my degree is in environmental history and much of my scholarly work focused on the interplay between human activity on the one hand and natural forces and settings on the other — climate, land and water formations, wildlife, etc. Again, having some understanding of this interplay is incredibly helpful in building worlds, making maps, creating societies, etc. That said, my degree was in modern American environmental history, so when it came time to write about medieval castles and weaponry, I had to do research like anyone else!

What authors have had the biggest influence on you?

DC: Well, Tolkien, of course. I first encountered The Hobbit as a kid at summer camp when I played Bilbo Baggins in a dramatization of the book. I read the book a couple of years later and loved it, jumping immediately to The Lord of the Rings. And upon reading LOTR, I decided that I never wanted to read anything other than fantasy. (Never fear: I’ve since read other things.) the idea of building a world from the ground up, of creating a place where magic was as much a part of the setting as the trees and grass, fascinated me. A couple of years later, I read Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, both of them, in quick succession. And reading Donaldson convinced me that I not only wanted to read this stuff, I wanted to write it, to create something as compelling and strange (in a good way) and dark and intriguing as what he created with his books. There are lots of authors who I read now and admire, but the one other author who has probably influenced me the most is Guy Gavriel Kay. His worlds are so real, so beautifully conceived and lovingly detailed; his characters are so fully realized; and his prose is so rich and powerful. He is truly a master storyteller, and that’s what I strive to be, what I hope someday to become.

What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?

DC: I think, at the risk of sounding immodest, that I have a number of strengths as an author. I believe my characters are complex and interesting. I don’t write cardboard cutouts, at least I try not to. Even a minor character has to have a history, desires, needs, ambitions, reasons for doing what he or she does. I try to convey that. As I’ve said before, I work in shades of grey and I think that makes my characters interesting and believable. I also think I do a decent job of creating interesting worlds that draw in my readers. I spend a good deal of time developing histories, forming cultural, religious, and social traditions, all of which serve to make my worlds seem real. And I think I write good, clean prose that makes my narratives flow well. Clearly, I still have much to learn about my craft — I can improve in all these areas and I’m working everyday to make myself a better writer. But I’m proud of the books I’ve written thus far, even knowing that the next one will be better than the last.

What author makes you shake your head in admiration?

DC: Again, I come back to Guy Kay. Tigana, his fourth book, is probably my favorite fantasy novel. It is achingly poignant, incredibly entertaining, and exquisitely written. It also has a very strange ending — some would say that Kay never really finishes the book. He leaves a huge question hanging at the end. Yet it works, because the rest of the book is so flawlessly put together. The ending is simply a riddle to be pondered. I first read the book years ago, and I still find myself thinking about it.

You’re headed for “Survivor Island” for a year. You get one book, one movie and one CD. What do you choose?

DC: Ouch! No netflix? No web merchants to buy more? You’re harsh! Okay: The CD would be “Skip, Hop and Wobble,” an acoustic instrumental album by Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, and Russ Barenberg. It’s kind of bluegrass, jazz and it’s phenomenal. The movie would be — well wait, if I choose Lord of the Rings do I get all three? Never mind. I’d probably take “High Fidelity”, with John Cusack and Jack Black, which is hilarious and incredibly intelligent. And the book would be Tigana, for reasons already given. But there’s no way I’m ever letting you pack for me. I need five of each, at least.

What lesser known fantasy authors would you like to recommend to our readers?

DC: Well, I assume that you mean “Lesser known than they ought to be” as opposed to “lesser known than me” since I’m still not all that well known. I’d recommend a couple of friends of mine, not merely because they’re my friends, but because they’re really good at what they do. Terry McGarry, who writes epic fantasy, has two books out, Illumination and The Binder’s Road, and a third on the way, called Triad. Terry is a masterful writer — her prose is breathtaking, her plots complex and compelling, her characters memorable. I’d also recommend Andy Duncan, who is not really “lesser known” anymore, and is not strictly a fantasy writer. He’s written a collection of short fiction called Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, that has been recognized with multiple awards and award nominations. His is a unique voice in the genre right now, and he is going to be a big star for a long, long time. Other authors whose work is not only excellent, but also different, innovative, and interesting would include Leah Cutter (Paper Mage and The Caves of Buda) S.L. Farrell (The Cloud Mages series) and Richard Parks (The Ogre’s Wife). I recommend all of them.

What advice would you give to aspiring fantasy writers?

DC: I’m asked this question more than any other, and I still don’t know if I have one piece of advice that would fit all cases. For young writers — students who wish to be a writer someday, I’d say keep on writing and reading as much as you can. Carve out some time from your schedule so that you can write a bit each day, preferably at the same time every day, so that it becomes as much part of your routine as brushing your teeth (but please, for the sake of us all, don’t do it INSTEAD of brushing your teeth….). And read, in genre and out, so that you begin to recognize what things work for you as a reader and what things don’t. That knowledge will be invaluable as you write. I’d also encourage younger writers to write as much short fiction as possible. As tight as the short fiction market is right now, it’s easier to break into than the novel market. You don’t need an agent. All you need is a good story and a suitable place to send it (a journal, an anthology). Even if you have a novel burning a hole in you, impatient to come out, you can start with some short stories — background pieces on certain characters or, if you’re world-building, on certain historical events. Those shorter pieces will help you get a better handle on your subject matter for the novel, and they just might help you get published.
For older writers who have work they’re trying to sell, I’d recommend that they attend some of the bigger conventions in our field — the World Science Fiction Convention or the World Fantasy Convention. These can be a bit pricey, but they offer the opportunity to meet and chat with editors, agents, and publishers, as well as other writers, both aspiring and established. There are no better venues for doing business.

Tor is now recognized as the very best fantasy publisher and has been for years. Are you proud of being under contract with such a renowned publisher?

DC: Tor has been a great place for me and yes, I am proud to have the Tor logo on my books. They publish great writers, they put out a ton of books and they’re recognized for the quality of their authors and the fine packaging of their books. That said, there are lots of other fine houses publishing fantasy and science fiction right now, and an author could do very well with any of them. There are also several small presses that do a great job putting out a limited number of titles every year. I feel fortunate to be with Tor, but I certainly don’t think that Tor stands alone in the field. George R.R. Martin, David Weber, Elizabeth Moon, Lois McMaster Bujold, Lynn Flewelling and lots of others seem to be doing just fine for themselves writing for publishers other than Tor.

After writing an award-winning trilogy, is there added pressure when it comes down to writing a new series?

DC: I don’t really think of it that way. I’m pleased that the LonTobyn books were recognized with the Crawford, but just as I wouldn’t allow the quality of my work to slip because of the award, neither would I feel any added pressure to write better stuff. I push myself pretty hard — I’m a tough critic of my own work. I won’t publish anything that I think is slipshod, nor will I allow myself to grow lazy or complacent with anything I write. But I also know that I can only do my best and if that’s not good enough, there’s really nothing I can do about it. Fortunately, that hasn’t been a problem for me — my books have been received pretty well, both critically and commercially. The point is, though, I try my best to put out quality work with every book I write — the Crawford doesn’t add to that or detract from it. It was a nice honor to receive, but in a way, I’ve moved on.

We would like to thank you for kindly taking the time to answer our questions, Mr. Coe. We wish you continued success in your career, and hopefully we can do this again at some point.

DC: Thanks very much. I enjoyed it, and I’ll look forward to chatting with you again.


Interview by Patrick

Copyright – Patrick

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