Optimutt: Before his guests could all arrive to help him celebrate the New Year, I had the chance to sit down with Gary Alan Wassner, author of the Gemquest series, published by Windstorm Creative. After the action-packed finale of the fourth book, Revenge of the Elves fans are left wondering just what the last arc in the series has in store for the enormous cast, the race of sentient trees called Lalas, and especially that of the main antagonist, Caeltin Dar Agenathea. Gary was kind enough to put off his preparations for a little while to answer some questions I had about his truly epic legend.
Optimutt: Gary, let’s begin with a little about your background. As a reader, who do you like to read? Who are your greatest influences as a writer and a reader?
Gary Wassner: In my life, the biggest influence was Nietzsche. He taught me how to think with a perspective with which I read everything. Whether it’s necessarily my own at this point, I can’t even answer anymore; but he’s definitely the biggest influence on how I think. I admire how he writes, but he had a presence that was all his own, so as a writer, I don’t pretend to even approach his style. I write stories – the nature of characters – there is inspiration there. I have yet to find a writer who can influence me more.
But I read everything. Trash, great stuff, classics; all of which is a means to see how people approach their own stories. The twists, the turns, I want to see the language and how authors build genre and I want to see how they resolve their stories. I read everything. Sometimes, I’ll get halfway through a book, realize that I won’t learn anything more and put it down; and sometimes I’ll read beginning to end passionately and not be able to put it down.
O: What’s the most recent book that struck you like that?
GW: The most recent story in the past 4 years that I was not able to put down was R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before. I opened it up and I couldn’t put it down. It struck a chord with me because we have similar philosophical background [Both were once university Philosophy Professors] and I could see his influences clearly as I read it so I was naturally drawn to it.
O: What else?
GW: Not a lot. I’ve liked a lot but I can’t think of anything I’ve stayed up to read in a long long time. I love when that happens though. I think there’s a Catch-22 in literature. When everyone loves a book, I tend to think negatively about it, like the mystique, the magic disappears somehow. It’s the same with a Hollywood film. Hollywood blockbusters give me different expectations than Independent films. You go to one for one thing, and to another for a different one.
O: Here, at sffworld.com, you express your love for music with almost daily updates on your “Song of the Day” forum thread. Do you find the music you listen to working its way into your writing? Like, you hear something and realize this is exactly what I want to hear?
GW: I’ll give you one example. Ani Fifranco is a great poet, a great musician. In one of her songs, she says, and I’m paraphrasing here, if she looks down, she sees nothing but if you look up, just to see everything, you’re going to trip over all these little things you’re not looking at. Things like that, those kinds of images, those kinds of insights, they work their way in. A lot of what I use are single lines from songs that impress me. In that, I think, my books are more inspired by musiciains than by anything else. As for music, I like all kinds. So many people can write incredibly moving tunes and put together the right words that just capture the heart of something. You have a character moving through their life, and are baffled, then they turn to someone and that person, stranger, friend, whatever, says the one line that captures that emotion… Yeah, I’m incredibly influenced by the music.
O: It seems, in some ways, that for every genre of music you love, you have an almost equivalent sociological avenue of thought in the GemQuest story. How much world-building did you do before writing the first book?
GW: I did none. The world was all in my head. It was a world that I dove right in.
O: What about the histories and diplomacy between the various races?
GW: It just seemed so natural to me. You write stuff because you love what you write because it feels right and natural. Whenever I close my eyes, I can see this world, and it’s there for me. I look at that tree there [referring to what he sees in his mind’s eye], and I don’t know what’s behind it. But all I have to do is go around that tree and I see it clear as can be. The world is visceral. As I wrote it, I felt the books were already written and all I had to do was describe it and it’s there. It’s all there. All that’s unwritten is there for me to write. I get into a character, and he has his chapter and he’s on his horse and there we go. I wait for him to reveal himself to me. I don’t get the sense that you have to force the creation. To me, the process is very organic. It’s my responsibility to write it and tell it and enjoy it.
O: Because they are so central to the GemQuest story, just what are Lalas trees and how did they come about?
GW: I’ve always taken a strong comfort from trees. They’re old, solid, wise, stable; they endure. They represent to me strong grandparent figures. As a child, growing up and my whole life, I’ve loved walking through woods. They are symbols of the earth itself, and every time I hear about or see forest fires on the news, in papers, I used to cry. It was like with each tree that we killed hurt the earth just a little bit more. They are as important to us as water. We take them for granted and I wanted to use trees in GemQuest as a means of binding – which they really do – the world together. There is so much happening under the ground, in the roots that we just can’t see, and that motif is central to the themes on all the covers. What is on the surface is only half of the story. With this in mind, it was then easy for me to give the trees voices that readers could relate to. The Lalas have the ability to tell us just how they are affected by the air, by the earth, by pollution. To me, they are the perfect symbols of what should be.
O: In addition to the Lalas and a horde of monsters of your own creation, you use traditional Epic Fantasy creatures such as Elves and Dwarves. What is mystique for you of traditional elements of fantasy?
GW: The things that are most endearing to me about these races is that they bring along with them so much unspoken history. Maybe it’s the easy way out to evoke these kinds of icons, but I don’t think so. I think it draws on what’s created in our genre and then moves on [without needing to explore them in microscopic detail]. We pick certain animals and themes in our books that represent certain things, horses, for example, may be majestic, but “majestic” is a human appellation. Animals are just animals. But we read the word “lion” and “horse” and we think certain things about those animals. They have these built in legends, descriptions, that are very evocative. They’re all metaphors anyway. I thought, “Why not use ones that people can readily pick up on?” The fact that I have elves and dwarves in the books doesn’t do anything but evoke certain ideas. They don’t share a history with other authors. They’re not real. There’s no book to go back to that says, “history” but they are who they are and they are who we make them to be. My Elves are just beautiful people, that’s it.
O: Would you see elves as human version of Lalas?
GW: I see them as being more in touch. Although… ironically, there are no Chosen [men or women who have bonded into an emotional partnership with a Lalas] who are Elves. There are no Lalals in elf cities. Lalas perspectives are more in line, naturally. I don’t see them as similar to the elves. The trees are of a different world. The elves are people. They are a different culture of humans with a different perspective of time and nature, but they are still people. Even the more unusual characters are there to fulfill different needs of the story. What is a race of wizards? What is a wizard? What is Caeltin? Does it matter what he is? Is he immortal? What does that even mean? If someone wants to read it and say there’s an inconsistency, well, it doesn’t matter to the story. World-building, you never stop. You have to draw certain limits to what you hope to accomplish and then you’d end up writlng a book.
O: As a bit of a student of Philosopher, yourself, how familiar are you with Plato’s notion of the Philosopher Kings, as desribed in his “Republic”? One particular character, met in the first book of the arc, “The Twins”, Baladar, struck me as a direct example of a Philosopher King. How much did these Philosopher Kings influence your writing?
GW: To me, it’s quite important that anyone who has an influence over the people do so in a responsible way. They need to know the difference between right and wrong. It has even been argued that Hitler was a philosopher king – a horrible one, certainly – but he had a concept that he had thought out and people would listen to him. Ghandi had a vision; he was a politician who based his ideals on a very philosophical point of view. You need to come to politics, to authority, with a point of view. You need to be a teacher. And you need to be compassionate, but you also need to be a warrior. When you’re a philosopher king, you’re just a teacher given power. But you have to remember that you are a teacher. So it’s just the way it is. It’s dogma and certainty that characterizes a great leader, people who accept their responsibility to those they look after.
I think the worst thing to happen to a human being to is no longer be motivated, inspired. If you become complacent, you may as well be drugged out. A ruler can’t be arrogant, they have to be aware. In the world I created, certainly, a Philosopher King is a relevant concept because they are real leaders. We don’t have them today. But that’s why we do world-build; to make the kinds of leaders we’d like to see.
O: Would you say Caeltin would consider himself one?
GW: He wouldn’t because he doesn’t have any directive that would benefit others. He’s not a philosopher, he’s not a dictator, he’s not a doubter. He knows what he wants: he’s certain. The only certainly for him is that he hurts all the time and he wants the suffering to end. For him, life – living every day – is what makes him suffer. So for him, the only way to end that is for life to end. Even if he died, he wouldn’t ever go away, he’d still be there in matter or energy. It’s a tough situation for him. But that’s the main issue of the last book, When Monsters Call Out the Names of Men. Is non-existence possible? There’s a lot of complexity involved with wrapping this all up. I have a clear end of how it gets wrapped up.
O: So is that you saying you know what the ending is going to be?
GW: I thought so. I think I know the last scene. If I were to describe the last scene in a particular graphic way, then yes. But, do I know how the story will end up? I thought I did but now, I don’t know.
O: Will this end in a God is wrathful/god is merciful situation?
GW: No. It really won’t. My concern is this: You can’t end a series on too negative a note, I feel. I have found, I have written myself into a paradox, which is a good thing. All this is good all this is great, but it’s diffucult, really really difficult. The paradox is that my most evil character: He’s not evil anymore. He’s amoral for very real philosophical reasons. For Caeltin, there’s not going to be an epiphany, that’s just not going to happen, it’s not his character. But that leaves me having to resolve his crisis. And that has become the main crisis of the book. At this point if I were asked what character I identify most with, I’d have to say Caeltin. Then that puts me in an usual place to be. At first, I identified with Dav or Thomas in their quest to save the world, and the true sense of goodness and right and Caeltin challenged all of that. He’s the opposite… no they’re not even opposites. He’s just different. Caeltin is amoral. He has no sense of right or wrong, sees no value in anything. Nothing is too meaningful for him. To him, you live, you die, that’s it.
O: Has he ever tried to worship the Lalas as a means of giving value to his existence?
GW: In the very beginning, pre book one. It’s a prequel here. He had a very close relationship with them, but it was painful for him. Because there’s a truth here; “The more you love, the more you commit, and when it’s gone, the more you suffer.” When someone dies, you become conflicted. How do you reconcile this loss? Colton is unable to do that. For him, it’s a little like a Buddhist point of view, almost along the lines of Schopenhauer: Is there any way to end suffering? As writer, I’m going to find the natural salvation. I don’t look at the Lalas or any of that as a God in the Judeo-Christian sense, I look at it more as a naturalistic… I see this world in an organic way in that everything affects everything else. Every breath you take affects the world maybe more a physics sense, but it has ramifications throughout thought and thinking. Every action has to have a similar effect somewhere. But for balance, that’s got to be ground in ethics, too. Why do the right thing? Why not just do the wrong thing? There are consequences here, in a metaphysical planeteering. What is the meaning of right and wrong. And that’s Caeltin. That is why he’s suffering. He can’t find the link between nothing and everything. Life, itself is pain and suffering.
O: He sounds like a bit of a nihilist.
GW: He is a nihilist. He’s not a typical villain. He’s not trying to take over the world so that he can take over, he doesn’t want to rule; he just wants to live. But he knows he can’t just die here, because for him, in the organic world, he’ll just go back into the earth and just come back again.
O: Where are you in the book, now?
GW: Still on the first draft. I’ve been putting it off. I’ve never had writer’s block – well, I shouldn’t say I’ve never had it – until now I’ve never had it. But I wouldn’t really consider this writer’s block. I think I’m just a little bit afraid of writing new chapters again because I feel I have so much at stake here and I want everything prior to writing new chapters to be done and ready. I’ve been editing and editing and editing. I think it’s time to stop editing, to leave what I’ve done and go back to new material. It’s going to take a lot of work once the book’s written to complete it, once the rough draft is finished, that’s just like 70% done.
There will be unfortunately a lot of deaths in this last book. A character who I love quite a lot has basically told me that “It’s time. I’m ready.” And you know when someone says it’s time to die, what do you say? Your reaction of course is no, no way. But you know what’s right. Just like when my grandmother passed away, two years ago. She was 99 years old and I went down to see her in Florida. I knew this was the last time I’d see here. I was very close to her. She hadn’t gotten out of bed in a very long time, didn’t talk. When I got there, she had one of the most lucid days in a long time. She took me outside on a porch overlooking a canal and a golf course, where she became very animated like somebody had woken up, and she said “Oh, I’m going to go play golf again.” She was 99 years old, hadn’t spoken in months! I was back in New York for about two days when I got the call. I mean, I thought she was going to die during that week because she said to me, “It’s time. I’m ready.” I was telling this to my editor and she said that’s the scene right there. When this character dies, that’s it, that’s how I need to write it. And she was absolutely right. That’s how you have to do it. Real things grab you. And when this character dies in this last book – it’s been set up in the previous books and he has to die – it’s going to be a really emotional chapter for me. It’s not going to be hard to write but it will be difficult to contend with these real emotions. And I think that’s the key to writing a book that touches people.
O: When do you think you might be done with the overall story?
GW: 6 months. I sit down and write for thirty minute to hour long blocks, and I’m doing far more editing this time around that I didn’t do as much of in the previous four books. I’m going to give myself a lot of time.
Rob Queen / Optimutt