We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Liane Merciel, the writer of the Ithelas books, a fantasy series with a dark streak. The second in the series, Heaven’s Needle, hit the stores in April and is published by Simon & Schuster in the US in paperback and ebook format.
Hello, Liane, thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk to us.
1) The first book in your series, River King’s Road, begins with a mysterious event that catapults the story into action: a massacre of devious proportions. What made you decide to start the story with such a deadly event?
Well, the standard writing advice is “start the story where it begins.” And that particular massacre is the catalyzing event for everything else that happens in the novel; it’s all born of people grappling with, and trying to control, the repercussions of those deaths.
Plus the other bit of standard writing advice is “open with a dramatic hook,” and while there are plenty of ways for an action-scene beginning to go wrong, that one worked well enough for me.
2) Are Oakharn and Langmyr based on places or cultures we all know here on earth (either now or in the past), or did you try to make them unique to your world?
A little bit of both. The original inspiration for the long-running hostility between the nations came from France and England during the Hundred Years’ War — a dynastic conflict that spiralled into something much greater, longer, and messier than anyone originally intended, and which looked very different (and smaller, and more personal) to the little people on the ground than it did to all their distant kings.
There are a lot of interesting ideas and contradictions tied up in that period of history. It started out as being about princes and royal houses, and turned into basically the nastiest neighborhood feud ever. National sentiment arose as an idea, even as the nations themselves bled dry. Mercenaries and peasant soldiers gained great influence, but at the same time, the ideals of chivalry seemed more romantic than ever. It’s all just a very fun imaginative playground.
So I scavenged the ideas I wanted to use, de-emphasized the ones I didn’t, and built the rest of the world as needed to support the story I wanted to tell. RKR isn’t precisely about any of the things I mentioned above, but the story doesn’t exist without that scaffolding. And Langmyr and Oakharn don’t exist without the story.
3) Could you explain to us what bloodmagic is, and what its significance is in your stories?
“Bloodmagic” is how the people of Ithelas refer to various sorts of magic that rely on the infliction of pain or death. The victims don’t have to be unwilling, but extreme masochists are in short supply, so they usually are. As such, “bloodmagic” is a useful shorthand for “evil bad nasty magic used by bad nasty people in the service of bad nasty gods.” It is an unambiguous signifier of evil, or at least as unambiguous as one is likely to get. Most of us can agree that the gratuitous infliction of pain and death on unwilling subjects is just not something nice people do.
The point of that evil varies from story to story, but I do like having it in the toolbox. As I’ve said elsewhere, having Evil with a big E is one of the really fun perks in fantasy (you can have it in other genres too, of course, but it’s typically less fun there), and it doesn’t necessarily make anything simpler. Just starker.
4) When developing the language (i.e. the names of magic, special people and places like solaros) of the Ithelas world, what were your inspirations?
There honestly weren’t any to speak of. I have no great gift for inventing names or linguistic conventions; I just sort of magpie around, stealing from historical sources, interesting typos, sometimes the weirder fake names that pop up in my spam folder. Sometimes the word has a fairly transparent real-world derivation (“solaros” for a sun priest obviously pulls from Sol, our star, then gets fancied up a bit so that it looks like a semi-respectable invented fantasy word, but one that readers are likely to still connect to sun imagery).
5) In Heaven’s Needle, the second book set in the world of Ithelas, you introduce us to another type of Evil – Blackfire. In my opinion, it’s a particularly nasty business: a substance that basically blows people up. I really liked how it was introduced with Corban coming to savor that stench of, as you say, ambiguous Evil. How did you come up with that idea? Were you trying to emulate any modern day scenarios or weapons?
I’m not sure how much I can say about blackfire stone without veering into spoilers. The main inspirations were taken from medieval and early modern conceptions of witchcraft, specifically how black magic might be transmitted from one practitioner to another, and why witches might be driven to consort with devils. So that, plus a hefty sprinkling of other things. There are certainly some modern-day ideas hovering in the background (and at least one that’s not very much in the background at all) but they are not a primary focus. Real-world threats and crises inevitably shape the ideas and approaches that we take into fiction, but I’m not a huge proponent of centering one’s story around them. At least not if it’s a fantasy story.
6) An aspect of your writing that readers appreciate are your ‘gray’ characters, ‘Gray’ meaning complicated characters with both good and bad traits. Did you purposefully intend for your characters to be ‘gray’, or did you just write them the way they occurred to you?
I wanted to write about characters who felt “real,” and to me that meant people with recognizably human concerns and desires, trying to achieve their goals and move through their lives as best they can.
It’s not really a matter of picking out traits from boxes labeled “Good” and “Bad” and assigning a handful of each to every character. That implies a level of detachment in the character-building process that I just don’t have. (As for “grayness,” well, that’s like “good writing” — as far as I can tell it’s an entirely subjective judgment, and therefore a bit of a chimera to chase.) It’s just trying to imagine what a person of a given background, with certain expectations and values, would feel. What would this person want? What would he be willing, or not willing, to do to get it? What might she reflect upon in quieter moments, or try to protect in peril? And then everything else, ideally, flows naturally from there.
7) You have impressive education credentials and you are an attorney. When did you know you wanted to be a writer and how do you find time to write?
Hmm. I don’t know that I ever wanted to be a writer, exactly. From a very young age I knew that I wanted to write, but that is not quite the same thing — it’s the doing, not the being, that called to me. (And, based on anecdotal evidence, it does appear that wanting to write is more enjoyable and more likely to succeed than wanting to be a writer. Like Stephen King says, you need to delight in a thing before you can get really good at it.)
As for finding time, it’s not as easy as it was. My job responsibilities have shifted to take up more of the brainy-parts previously dedicated to fiction, and I’ve gotten into fostering and rehabilitating shelter dogs, and this and that and many other things — all rewarding, all time-consuming. There is far less time for writing than there was. But you still find odd minutes here and there to get little bits done as you can. You have to. You’re committed. And if there’s anything that causes me agonies of despair, it’s the thought of falling down on a commitment.
8) Can we expect more books set in the Ithelas world? If so, when?
I honestly don’t know. I have a proposal out to the publishers but, at the moment, no contract for further Ithelas books. So right now all I can say is that there’s at least one more story I’d like to write in the world… but when and whether that will happen is not something I presently know.
9) You are an active member of SFFWorld.com. How long have you been visiting the site? Do you get a chance to connect with your readers through the site?
Um, well, let’s see. I’ve probably been lurking since… 2008? Maybe 2009? I’m very bad at timelines. Mostly I don’t post because I don’t have anything interesting to say, but I do read the discussions and often find them thought-provoking.
The site certainly gives the opportunity to connect with readers but I don’t often take it. Anything that carries a whiff of self-promotion makes me exceedingly uncomfortable (this is also the main reason I’m so bad about answering questions in a timely manner), so it’s just easier to lurk. You all are interesting to watch.
It’s been a pleasure, Ms. Merciel. Thank you for your time!
Thank you for having me!