Hello Kerry, thank you for sitting down with us and talking about Blade Dancer, the first of your Dancer novels.
Tolan: Happy to oblige. It’s always nice to re-visit my earliest work in the series.
SFFWorld: You’ve been around the forum for some time, but some of our readers may be interested in learning more. Can you tell us a little about your novels and your background?
Tolan: Blade Dancer was my “break-through” novel, and was picked up by Time Warner’s IPub division back when the book was simply titled “Qurl”. Unfortunately, the division folded four months prior to release, and I spent a few years sulking about it before finally offering the work to Champagne Books up when they wanted to start an SF line. It made the shortlist for the EPPIE Awards much to my delight, and prompted me to continue the series and one spin-off (Waiting Weapon). Me? I’m a software engineer in Austin, Texas, and also a veteran. I know my way around military and had enough combat experience to make my writing a bit more believable when it came to such things.
SFFWorld: So, I’ve read Blade Dancer and I am very impressed by the battle scenes. I suspect you’ve drawn heavily from experience. Is that the case?
Tolan: Oh, yeah. Nothing like being bombarded by 122mm rockets with a side order of snipers to polish up those descriptions (grin). I served a combat tour in Vietnam at a lovely place called Bien Hoa (probably Vietnamese for “sitting duck”) at the bottom of what was called the “Iron Triangle”. Got hit once a month or so. Battle is a very visceral and often confusing event, and it ends up being one’s training that gets you through the craziness. As a writer, I am very keen to the personal cost in the aftermath – both to the soldier and those around them.
SFFWorld: Blade Dancer is written from the perspective of a young, female alien in a warrior sect. Excuse my language, but she is a badass warrior. Big, strong, and fiercely scary. Where did she come from? Who inspired this awesome warrior?
Tolan: Mikial is a product both of a nineteen year old’s fantasy (not gonna elaborate, heh) and a shrewd marketing decision that told me there were damn few female protagonists in SF at the time I was writing Blade Dancer. Problem was, I’m a guy writing from a female viewpoint, so it made sense to go for an alien version of the fairer sex that was both aggressive and built for the task at hand. To bond her further with the reader, I made sure she was a rarity in an otherwise male species. That said, I didn’t forget that she was still a “she” with all the trappings one might expect in both the angst and insecurity departments concerning her larger size and feral disposition. If Mikial had any inspiration in her creation, it was probably through the talents and strong personality of an actress of the time (and model) named Grace Jones. It was easy to envision a clawed, bulked up (very) version of the actress. The feral part came naturally. What really set Mikial apart for me was that I dragged both her family and friends into the mix. The casualties of war are not just with the veteran.
SFFWorld: Wow. And she’s some woman, in the book I mean. I really enjoyed her “feral” disposition and her strength. But I do have a gripe about the depiction of her – the covers of the latter books do her no favors. Did you have much say in those?
Tolan: I have little control over the covers beyond an initial suggestion, and in the case of Battle Dancer (final book in the series) the cover is completely misleading beyond presenting a female figure. My requested cover had a fully combat-armored female figure toting a rifle, however the publisher dictated a more eye-catching rendition purely for marketing purposes. Yes, I argued passionately against the cover. Yes, I lost (grin), and, yes, the cover does attract the male eye (sigh). Rogue Dancer has the most accurate depiction of a scene on its cover, and even then the female figure seems without much clothes and certainly not what Mikial would look like. Such differences are typical even with the old traditional publishers. I do provide my own descriptions, of course, but keep in mind that I can’t provide any human comparisons from Mikial’s point of view. Hence, no “cross between Grace Jones and Xena-on-steroids-and-a-vampire” stuff. I assume (correctly or not) that readers will realize she’s humanoid, and take care to point out that she’s not a furry, either. All of my first chapters cover her skin tone, size, those claws, and other transformations she endures throughout the course of the series.
SFFWorld: Yes, I agree that you do a great job with that in the text, but those covers do leave a certain impression. Does it bother you that your publisher is going with a very light-toned skin color when Mikial is obviously a much darker hue, even after her transformation at the end of the book? I know it bothered me.
Tolan: Of course it bothers when the cover goes so far off base as to have little to do with the character – but this is one of the things an author has to put up with when they go to a publisher. Covers are to catch the eye – a marketing tool that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the story. Battle Dancer, the final book in the series, really shows off this point (cough…among other things).
SFFWorld: Let’s get back to your story world. Are there specific places or countries that you based the Qurls and Taqurls on?
Tolan: Well, first came the reasoning (they have to live in some defensible area so…hills) and then the application of memory from my trips through the Smokey Mountains. That sort of stuff. What I really wanted was to let the reader enjoy different locales, so you will see port cities, plains, mountains, and such. Drawing out maps did help.
SFFWorld: The aliens of Dessa seem overly militarized. However, after I thought about it a bit, I realized they weren’t much different from us. Would you say your aliens are a version of us on another planet? Why populate the story with aliens if so? Why not an alternative history novel instead?
Tolan: Definitely had to be aliens. The premise for Blade Dancer was drawn from my experiences in Vietnam – how we Americans treated the locals with complete disregard and contempt for their own culture. I wondered what would happen if we made First Contact with a seemingly less advanced race with that kind of arrogance (and got the “less advanced” part wrong). Hence, Blade Dancer was born. The Qurls aren’t that militarized, it’s just that you are seeing their world through the viewpoint of someone who is born to that very military Datha sub-species (sect). Hell, everything to Mikial is military (grin). Can’t get that girl to think beyond the end of a barrel. I did envision a far more social animal with the Qurls – which would encourage some amount of regimentation since the four sub-species were in a very symbiotic relationship with each other.
SFFWorld: One thing I thought was very clever of you was to present a disparate version of history of the Servants and Qurls. That’s often the case, is it not? One side holds up something or someone as a shining example, but the reality is often far more tarnished. Is there a real-world situation that inspired your scenario?
Tolan: History is indeed dictated by the victors – provided they are the one’s teaching you. I’m sure the native Americans have a (cough) slightly different history of things than we do. Talk to the Germans about Dresden. You won’t find many Belgian children being taught about what happened in the Congo, either. Nobody wants to admit to those embarrassing truths, and I suspect this would be something we would see with any highly factional society – even alien ones.
SFFWorld: In regards to your alien history, but that’s just it. You decided to make the obvious difference in how the cultures view their past a focal point in the plot of your book(s). I think this kind of detail adds a depth to your writing and the story that makes it stand out. Are there other tidbits like this the reader can expect to see in the other books of this series?
Tolan: As my characters are driven by cultural differences, and those differences came out of historical events, you bet I’m going to delve further. I mention “Min Saja” in the first book – an apparent post-holocaust wasteland covering a quarter of the world’s surface. In Rogue Dancer, you’re going to go there and tinker with some technology that ought to have stayed silent. Ancient technologies play a hand in all the upcoming novels. The tumultuous relationship between Qurls and the Servant race is a part of all the novels – keeping pace with Mikial’s equally troubled association with her natural mother. However (not wishing spoilers here), the story emphasis does change to more planetary concerns as the central theme with the series remains with the difficulties of First Contact.
SFFWorld: Towards the end of Blade Dancer, the reader is lead to believe that “the humans are coming”, and that’s not a good thing. I really like the role-reversal and reading a first contact story from the point of view of the aliens. What’s the message you are trying to convey with your Dancer series? Is there a message?
Tolan: Message is clear – if we take our arrogant attitudes into space, bad things will happen. We tend to step on other cultures without regard when we perceive them as being less advanced than our own. Look what a little gun-running did to upset things on Mikial’s world. I saw this time and again while in the military – and decided that we’re not always the good guys. Even if we meant well.
SFFWorld: Okay, different direction. You spent a lot of time in Blade Dancer describing the military and ceremonial dress of your characters. I really liked the mental image of their side skirts and armor. What inspired all of that?
Tolan: I want to immerse the reader in the culture – and how they dress is a huge factor. The armor, case in point, was simply a simpler version of battle armor you see our soldiers wearing today, but the side skirts came out of…well, you saw those guards around the Wicked Witch’s castle, right? Now that was awesome with how the uniforms were extended into flowing skirts like that. There are many other examples of that style in our history, and I wanted something more than some plain old shirt, pants, and jacket affair for a dress uniform. In Blade Dancer you get to see how newer technology will change traditional dress such as when the female Dathia find that their hair is too long to fit inside the new helmets. That made for a rather poignant scene in itself.
SFFWorld: Blade Dancer really gets going in the second half of the book, with Mikial a sort of fugitive in hostile territory where our heroine is sexually assaulted. Did you have any reservations about writing that scene and the subsequent scene in which she is counseled through that experience?
Tolan: The scene was not particularly fun, and touched on the dangers unique to female combatants. I wrote it due to “cause and effect” (her scent wafting everywhere) and a desire to remind the reader that Mikial wasn’t made of iron. Even a near-rape is traumatic, and not something easily shrugged off. The assault ended up being the last straw that precipitated her rather violent collapse – she’d been fighting against her conditioning from the start and that too had a price to be paid. I’m not a big fan of larger-than-life characters with that “Ain’t got time to bleed” mentality. My characters bleed…and hurt inwardly.
SFFWorld: Can we expect more awesome battle scenes in the next book(s) of this series?
Tolan: Most of the big division-sized battles are in reserved for Blade Dancer and Battle Dancer – the fourth and final book in the series. What you get in the other two novels is combat on a more personal level – way more painful. Rogue Dancer (book three) has a lot more politics, and in Defiant Dancer I also give Mikial a little break for romance, but both contain action scenes.
SFFWorld: What are you working on right now?
Tolan: I decided to clear my genre plate and work on an American fantasy – so few of those around with all the vamps and such crowding the scene. The tentative title is Tracks and concerns a young man who watched his sister vanish along with the tracks and locomotive that swept her up. Ten years later he finds those tracks again, and sets out to find her. Centering on the hobo culture, rail baronies, and other icons of Americana, I’ve been having a blast stretching things a step or two to the left. Currently working the first draft.
SFFWorld: Tracks? I caught NPR’s Fresh Air interview about Woody Guthrie over the weekend marking his centennial celebration. Being a Mexican-American with Texan roots, Mr. Guthrie’s songs, as tied to an era as any song, still hit a chord with me. I’m sure the subject of your upcoming Tracks will resonant with a lot of western Americans. When can we expect a release?
Tolan: Oddly enough, the story takes place in and around Indiana and Ohio instead of my home state of Texas as I really wanted to include the Erie Railroad in the story (I mean, come on, that name!). Also, Chicago was “Hobohemia Central” at one time and I couldn’t ignore that bit of history, either. I am close to being finished with the first draft, so most likely somewhere mid 2013 if all goes well with my publisher. I generally run through four drafts prior submission. Very pleased with how the plot is shaping up at this stage.
SFFWorld: Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers here at SFFWorld.com?
Tolan: Just my enjoyment at being a stalwart member of the Writers forum for some time and hobnobbing with all my fellow wizards. We’ve a great crew out there.
SFFWorld: It was a pleasure discussing your books with you, Terry, and I look forward to reading more of your work.
Tolan: My pleasure as well.
Blade Dancer, Defiant Dancer, Rogue Dancer, and Battle Dancer are available from Champagne Books.
© 2012 N.E. White / K.M. Tolan / SFFWorld.com