Interview with Joshua Palmatier

For the new readers, give a quick ‘n dirty overview of the trilogy.

Quick ‘n dirty, eh? Well, the trilogy centers around one character, Varis, who starts off barely surviving in the slums but is trained to be an assassin. Once those in power realize she has special skills, they hire her to kill the Mistress of the city, who sits on the Skewed Throne. The only problem is, the throne itself is insane . . . and it knows Varis is coming. That’s the driving force behind the first book in the series. Once she faces off with the throne, new dangers arise, such has a harsh winter with little food, the disappearance of much needed trading ships, the merchants vying for power in the city . . . and let’s not forget the Chorl, a race of people from the sea who threatened the coast long ago and have suddenly, explicably returned with a vengeance. They’ve learned of the Skewed Throne—and its sister throne, the Stone Throne—and they want control of the thrones’ powers, and are vicious and heartless enough to do anything to get it.

Chicken or Egg – What came first with this story (of the trilogy) Varis or the Throne?

The throne came first, although there wouldn’t have been a story without Varis. I was working on my first (as yet) unpublished novel called Sorrow and in one scene the characters are traipsing through an ancient museum. I needed to fill the museum with odd and cool relicts, each begging to have a history. One of the characters walked by this throne that didn’t look quite right: its shortest leg corresponded to the highest point on the seat, etc. Like an Escher painting. Anyway, when the character came close to the throne they heard voices coming from it (I have no idea why, it just sounded cool at the time). This freaked them out and they moved on. However, the image stuck with me. Then, later, I had a sudden “vision” of a magical white fire burning from horizon to horizon. A woman sees the fire from her boat in the harbor as it sweeps across the world, passing through her and everyone else in the city. I started asking what such an experience would do to a person, how it would affect them and touch them. Obviously it would drive some people mad (which it does). That was the genesis of The Skewed Throne: I combined the strange voices in the throne with the woman in the boat experiencing the Fire . . . and THEN I had a story.

What writers had the greatest influence on you writing? Who of your peers do you read and enjoy?

Probably the first writer to inspire me, early on, was Terry Brooks. I decided I wanted to write like him and set out to do just that. Of course that never works. You have to find your own voice. But I liked the voice and feel of his books and so I tried to emulate that in my writing. I then ran into Tad Williams and loved his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. His writing is much more complex than Terry Brooks and I love his use of language. And then there’s Stephen King. I’m not sure what it is about his writing, but somehow he captures my attention and doesn’t let go. Those would be the biggest influences on my writing over the years.

As for my peers, those I read and enjoy, I’d say Guy Gavriel Kay and Tad Williams. And Stephen King, of course.

Varis is a young woman, you are a man. What prompted you to write from the point of view of a girl/woman?

I get asked this question quite often and I don’t have a nice solid answer. I don’t think in terms of gender when I’m writing. Usually, a character appears, as in the Fire scene I described above. They’re there, in a particular situation, and they always already have their own gender (unless they’re genderless of course, this is SF we’re talking about), their own personality, their own past. I don’t consciously sit down and say, “I’m going to write about a female character this time, just to do something different.” I write whatever characters want to tell me their story. Varis had a particular story to tell, one that has taken me three books to get through. The next book from DAW—Well of Sorrows, the start of a new series—has a male main character, Colin, because that series is HIS story. The new project I’ve just started has two main characters, one male and one female. So it all depends on who shows up with a story to tell.

How do you feel you’ve improved as a writer over the course of the trilogy?

For one thing, I feel I’ve grown enough as a writer to handle more characters. *grin* The first book, The Skewed Throne, is completely centered on Varis. You’re introduced to many characters, but quite a few of them don’t survive for long. (She is an assassin after all.) By the third book, I have a whole cast of characters and I found that I had to learn new skills in order to keep track of all of them and their relationships without losing the momentum of the story. I also think that I’ve become better at writing the complex relationships people share, or at least getting those relationships and their complexity across without simply telling the reader what’s going on. I like to show the reader how relationships are developing, and often you only have a few paragraphs or sentences to do that, because the story demands a focus elsewhere. Rather than eliminate those subtleties in the story, I learned how to reveal those small slivers of life in a few words.

You were (and still are) a member of the Online Writing Workshop. How has your membership there helped you as a writer?

At the beginning, it was invaluable, mainly because you as the writer are so close to your writing that you often can’t see its flaws. The workshop helps you because for other writers those flaws are transparent. When they point them out, you have to slap yourself because it’s “so obvious,” but on your own . . . you may never see them. I think the workshops is also good because it forces you to read other people’s work specifically LOOKING for flaws. Once you read something that’s almost there, but not quite—once you’ve gotten past things like grammar and such—picking out that subtle flaw teaches you loads about watching out for such flaws in your own writing. You become a better writer when you read and critique others’ work. The way OWW is set up, it forces you to learn in this way (if you’re serious about writing, that is). And lastly, I think the simple fact that you are working and talking with other writers is a tremendous help during the writing process. Non-writers just don’t understand how frustrating and aggravating and enjoyable the writing process is. Being able to share your frustrations with other people who completely understand, rather than just nodding and “umhmming” like they understand, is a tremendous relief. Writing can be a lonely profession; workshops and writing groups make it less so.

That said, as with all workshops and writing groups, you have to find the one that works for you. In the OWW, you have to find the people on the workshop that give good critiques and you have to cultivate those who give critiques. And sometimes, even then, the workshop might not work for you. It helped me, enough that I still support OWW even though I rarely use it to post my work for critique. If it doesn’t work for you, then try a different online group, or try an in-person writing group. But the same rule still applies to the in-person critiques: find a group of people that is there to help you. It might take some time. Think of workshops and writing groups like clothes—sometimes they don’t fit, no matter how good they look, and sometimes they just aren’t your style. Find the workshop or writing group that fits you as a writer. And keep in mind that none of them may fit.

What writer would you like to read your work and say, “Nice going!” or some other congratulatory words of encouragement?

I would probably die a happy man if Stephen King said something half as nice about one of my books. I’d also love it if Tad Williams or Guy Gavriel Kay noticed my work. But Stephen King is the one writer who could conceivably make me flustered and speechless if we actually had any kind of contact. I did run into George R.R. Martin during the “Zombies Need Brains” party I helped throw (along with 5 other authors) at World Fantasy in Saratoga Springs, NY. I found myself speechless when he wandered into the back room of the party toward the end and had a short conversation with me. I claim extreme exhaustion and mild delirium for that though. *grin* And that doesn’t count anyway, since he hasn’t read any of my books. Yet.

How important is the Internet for writers today?

I think the internet is invaluable for writers today, not just for easily accessible research either. As a writer, you want to keep your fans interested in you and your books, so that when the next book comes out, they can’t wait to get their hands on it. Before the internet, this was nearly impossible. Now, with blogs and Facebook and MySpace, etc, you can keep the fans informed of what’s going on more or less on a daily basis. The internet also helps you reach new readers, because often fans are willing to help their favorite writers out by writing reviews of the book they just read so their friends know, or posting that graphic the writer just released about the upcoming release, or posting an interview like this one, whatever. Being able to “spread the news” through friends has become much easier. And let’s face it, the best advertising strategy is word of mouth. If I knew how to get “word of mouth” on demand, I’d be a bestseller.

Your books came out in relatively quick succession, compared to some of your peers. Were all three finished before The Skewed Throne was even published?

Ha ha! I wish. No, I actually sent out The Skewed Throne as a stand-alone novel, with not mention of the two sequels. I got an agent and DAW interested in it based solely on the first book. I didn’t have a word of the second or third book written at that point. You see, I’d learned my lesson with my earlier work, Sorrow. I wrote that book and nearly all of the sequel before realizing that I was wasting my time working on the sequel, because if the first book didn’t sell, I certainly couldn’t sell the second. So I didn’t do any work on the sequels to Skewed beforehand. In fact, I didn’t even have plot synopses written.

However, once DAW was interested in Skewed, they asked about possible sequels and I had the idea for The Cracked Throne already set in my head. I worked on the plot synopsis for that one, and cobbled together a rough idea for a third, and DAW decided to buy all three. Only after they were sold did I sit down and start working on Cracked.

Did much of the heart of The Skewed Throne change from the time you started writing to the time the novel published?

Let’s see . . . the first draft of The Skewed Throne had three chapters at the beginning that don’t appear in the final version. When I went back to rewrite it (before it went out to agents or editors), I realized that the real story started in the fourth chapter, so I cut the first three chapters except for a few important scenes. I worked those crucial scenes into the story after Chapter 4 as flashbacks or in other ways. That was the biggest change. Everything else came after receiving advice from agents or editors, and those changes weren’t as significant as cutting three chapters. My editor asked me to add in some additional scenes to clarify actions or motivations and to expand the vision of the city. Everything else was minor. So the heart of the story, even the little sections as Varis works her way through the palace that are scattered throughout the book, were all originally in that order.

You lucked out with the covers, I think. The first two depict a specific scene in the book and the third captures the theme of the book – why the switch in artists?

Well, that’s a question better asked of my editor. The author typically has no say in the artwork that is chosen for a book. That is usually left up to the marketing department of the publisher. In this case, I had more say than usual in the covers for The Skewed Throne and The Cracked Throne (although that doesn’t mean I had a huge say). For The Skewed Throne, they asked what my idea for the cover would be. I told them and they said that wouldn’t work, because my version didn’t depict the throne, and they felt the throne had to appear on the cover because of its title. So they told me what they thought the cover should be. For The Cracked Throne, they chose the scene and the artist got in touch with me (through my editor) to ask about details. But other than that I didn’t know anything about the cover until I saw it. And for The Vacant Throne . . . I had no idea they even had a cover until I saw it on Amazon.com. It was a total shock, because the style was so different from the previous two.

However, after the initial shock, I feel that the cover of the third book is the best of the three. It gives the reader a better idea of the tone and feel for the books as a whole. And of course it focuses exclusively on the throne image. It’s a little more atmospheric and . . . well, gritty. As for why the change in cover styles? I’d say the marketing department at DAW thought that new cover style would appeal to more readers.

As a Doctored University Teacher, how are you able to balance writing and work?

That’s always tough. I do most of the hardcover first draft writing during the summer months, when I’m not teaching. Basically, during those months, I sit down every weekday once I’m up, work until lunch, take a break, then sit down and work until the evening, when I hit the gym. I usually do no writing on the weekends.

When school is in session (I teach mathematics at SUNY—College at Oneonta), I get a lot fewer hours of writing done. I try to reserve this for the revision process, which isn’t as creatively demanding as the first draft. That doesn’t always happen though. Most of The Vacant Throne was written while teaching at the same time. It requires some hardcover dedication. Essentially, I set aside an hour or two every day after teaching to work on the book. I also try to schedule everything so that I have Fridays off from teaching. I write during those few hours and all day Friday, and do the grading/lecture writing during the weekends. The goal during teaching days is to write 750 words per day, approximately 3 pages. On free days (such as all summer), I try to generate twice that in a day.

Does your teaching career provide you with any insight on writing?

I’m often asked how I can teach mathematics, something logical and systematic, and yet write fantasy. But I think the two complement each other rather well. In order for fantasy to work, the magical system has to have rules that make sense and work with and against each other. I use the mathematics to help keep the magical systems in my fantasies “real.” The logic also helps me create stories that make sense, so the plots work well and lead you in the intended direction.

For the converse, in order to do anything in mathematics—proofs in particular—you need to be able to think outside the box, to use the rules in new and creative ways. That creativity and imagination is what I bring over from the fantasy side to help with the math. If the proof to a problem were obvious, then someone would have proved it by now. Using a little creativity, you can often prove something that hasn’t been proven before.

As for teaching in general, I think the best “insight” into writing I get is the exposure to so many different people. Every semester I have a new group of students, which amounts to about 120 different personalities. I get to see different quirks and mannerisms, hear different accents and inflections in speech, see different customs. All of this helps in creating new and interesting characters when you write. (And no, I have never used a student as a character in one of my books. I’ve used characters TRAITS from students, but never an entire personality.)

With the Throne of Amenkor trilogy now complete, what can you say about the next book Well of Sorrows?

I didn’t come up with the series title “Throne of Amenkor” but that is what DAW has been using for the series and I like it just fine. I’ve just been calling them the “Throne” books, which just doesn’t have a ring to it. *grin*

As for Well of Sorrows, it’s the first book in a new series . . . that doesn’t have a series title yet. I suck at series titles. Anyway, this new series is set in the same world as the Throne of Amenkor trilogy, although at a different time, on a different continent, and with completely different characters. It’s the story of Colin, a young boy who learns that gaining power isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The story isn’t as personal as Varis’ story in the Throne books—Well incorporates many points of view from numerous characters—but it’s still Colin’s story and no one else’s. The series will eventually connect up to theThrone of Amenkor series, although readers probably won’t see the connection until the third book in the new series. I really like his story, and I hope that readers will enjoy it as well.

Any last comments?

I just want to thank you, Rob, for taking the time to read and review my books, as well as to do this interview.  If your readers would like more information about me or the books, feel free to check out my webpage at www.joshuapalmatier.com, or comment on my LiveJournal blog at jpsorrow.livejournal.com.

© 2009 Rob H. Bedford, Joshua Palmatier, & SFFWorld

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