For those not familiar with your Mancer series can you tell us a bit about it? How did you get the idea in the first place?
Well, there’s really two stories in the ‘Mancer series – and the first is a father, desperately trying to keep his daughter safe from a pretty dangerous damned world.
But the reason it’s so dangerous is because Paul operates in a world of obsessive magic, called ‘mancy. If you love something enough, you start to wear holes in the laws of physics – a crazy cat lady who adores her little furballs with enough devotion can fall through the event horizon and become a felimancer. She’ll do Crazy Cat Magic. But by the time you get to that stage, you’re pretty unhinged. Maybe magicians in other books have these grand plans to take over the world, but a felimancer mostly cares about grooming her cat-centered pocket empire.
Which maybe would be not that bad – but as it turns out, the universe spent a lot of time creating these artisanal rules of physics for you, and hates it when you bend them. Any act of ‘mancy comes with a resultant backlash called flux, wherein the world rains down horrible coincidences down around your head until you’re either dead or the odds are evened out. And those horrible coincidences tend to take other people with them.
So Paul’s a ‘mancer. He literally can’t not do bureaucromancy because it’s not a spell he DOES, it’s an extension of who he IS. And when the flux strikes, the bad luck isn’t just generic – it strikes to destroy all the things you love.
Kiiiiinda bad if you have a kid.
When I think about Mancers a word that comes to mind is “otaku”, which is a Japanese word describing someone obsesses with something, although not in a magical sense. Do you see many parallels to our real world in the Mancers in your universe?
Oh yeah. The books are a way of allowing me to explore fandom – and not just in the “Whoo, nerds are AWESOME!” light you see in a lot of fan works. Because while both FLEX and THE FLUX deal with the joys of fandom – I mean, there’s origamimancers and culinomancers and plushiemancers because in my world, magic can spring from anything – it also deals with the dark side of that. Paul, the lead character, wound up losing himself in work because his home life was miserable. He’d lost his foot, he couldn’t tell his wife what he’d seen in the magical battle he’d been through, and everyone was calling him a hero for what he considered murder…
…and he lost himself in paperwork. He hated his insurance job so much he came to see the forms as a way of forcing his skinflint bosses to pay out claims to poor people. That was where he felt good. And so he became a bureaucromancer, able to do magic with paperwork – which sounds cool, but in chasing that dream he lost touch with his family, he lost touch with his daughter.
So really, a lot of FLEX is about that allure of fandom. Yeah, it can make your life better. But you can also use it as an escape. And if you really go off the edge, it starts costing you relationships. And Paul’s challenge is often in finding that balance, where how can he do this amazing magic and still come home to be a good father at the end of the day?
Flex, the first book in the series was released earlier this year and has got some great reviews. What were your expectations when the first book was released?
It’s gotten much better reviews than I expected from a novel I wrote basically for myself. I’d written seven novels that I thought were commercial before, and none of them sold – some of them because I wasn’t a terribly good writer back when I wrote them, others because they had these elements I thought had to be in novels. The number-one question I get asked about the ‘Mancer series is, “Why is there so much talk about donuts?” – and the answer is, “I love donuts, so I had people talk about donuts.” Why is there a chubby snarky female videogamemancer? Because that’s the sort of woman I love to talk to at cons.
I was sort of expecting people to go, “Ferrett, this is BS, there’s nothing here.” But if anything, people have embraced the flaws as adorable, and when they criticize anything, it’s the more traditional aspects of this novel. Go figure.
Now that your second book in the series, Flux is about to be released. Can you tell us a bit about what your fans can expect?
Paul’s struggle to be a good father continues – some very traumatic things happened to his daughter Aliyah at the end of FLEX, and THE FLUX deals with the fallout from that. So what you have is Paul desperately lying to everyone as he tries to hold his life together, and Paul is NOT good at lying. He’s too noble. And meanwhile, his daughter is resenting him because he’s playing the heavy, stopping her from crossing paths with the government agents who’d kidnap her in a heartbeat if only they knew who she was. And things are really spiraling out of control, because she’s eight years old but he literally can’t stop her from doing what she wants to do….
Also, there’s a lot of donuts. And crazy videogame magic. And bizarre and excruciatingly violent forms of romance. If you liked FLEX, there’s more Stuff in THE FLUX.
“Aliyah Tsabo-Dawson, The world’s most dangerous eight-year-old girl.” That’s a very intriguing description. Can you tell us a bit about your main characters and what is important for you when you create your characters?
Well, there’s Paul. We’ve discussed him. There’s also Valentine, who he forms a partnership with in FLEX – she’s slovenly, a kinky-ass videogamemancer who is his total opposite. Paul files papers, follows regulations, creates permanent change – and Valentine creates havoc, bouncing around her life like a pinball, going Grand Theft Auto on people at a moment’s notice. And weirdly, they wind up complementing each other well, because Paul’s smart but tends to bury his instincts, whereas Valentine functions better in the kind of structure that Paul hauls around with him.
Also, all of Paul’s paperwork magic can’t stop a bullet. Valentine can Halo SWAT teams into oblivion. That’s helpful.
What’s important when I create them is that my characters have to have a point. I have to be able to sympathize with even the worst villain – crazy, maybe, but I know what they’re trying to do. I need to be able to say “Okay, yeah, in the right circumstances, I could see wanting that.” And when that happens, I can make ‘em work for me.
What is it with Urban Fantasy you find fascinating?
Mostly that it’s such a large umbrella term to encompass such a variety of books. When you’ve got a term that covers both Laurel K. Hamilton and Max Gladstone, you’ve got a wide spectrum that people seem to think have something in common. And it’s so tenuous! But they’re all lumped together.
You attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop back in 2008. How did that change your writing career?
Pretty much in every way. I’d been stalled for almost two decades, writing lots without getting much better – and Clarion taught me that was because I was letting too much stuff slide. I thought I could get away with mediocre prose, or characterization snipped from popular culture, or stiff plotting that had characters going through motions. And it turns out that if you can see a flaw in any fiction, you’d better work your ass off to fix it, because there’s a hundred other flaws you’re not smart enough to see yet.
I was lazy. Clarion kicked my butt. And since then, it’s been an upward climb.
(Please note if you see mediocre prose or hackneyed characters or bad plotting in my books, I did my best. Sorry about that. Thank you.)
What has been most surprising to you in your writing and publishing career?
That I’m here at all!
(Seriously. Every acceptance is amazing, and even the negative reviews are people who read my book. FAR more than I expected.)
You also write shorter fiction and were nominated for a Nebula Award for your novelette Sauerkraut Station. Love the title by the way. How different do you find writing short stories and shorter fiction rather than novels? Do you have a preference?
It’s weird. I miss writing short stories because life has been all NOVEL NOVEL NOVEL, because short stories are just so crafty.
Which is to say that if I write a 3,500 word short story, you’d better believe I’ve polished every sentence until it shines. It’s like pocket watch; there’s no room for anything but tight-fitting parts. And I know there are some people who try for that in novels, but in my 100k I’m going to have a few sentences that are functional but not beautiful. There’s something oddly satisfying about getting to the end of a tale and knowing everything’s just where you meant it to be, whereas a novel’s so big it sprawls no matter what kind of effort you put into it. But novels can have much greater impact, so… I’ve been doin’ novels lately.
What books inspired your career as an author, and what authors do you enjoy now?
I hate to say “too many to list,” but I hate making lists. I always feel like I’ve left someone vital out. But usually, this is a way of asking, “So who do you write like?” – and the influences that ring most truly here are probably an odd combination of 1980s authors – David Eddings in the Belgarion, Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series, Spider Robinson’s Callahan series, Stephen King’s The Stand. All books about misfits forming families.
But I also go a little darker, because my other influences are more modern – I adore the rough-tinged violence of China Mieville, the weirdness of Robert Jackson Bennett, the biological imperatives of Peter Watts, the unflinching psychology of Kij Johnston. So it’s a weird mix of heartwarming and JESUS THAT HAPPENED.
Most writers have some other thing they’re passionate about, what’s yours?
I tend to write a lot of essays on relationships. In fact, I’m both openly kinky and polyamorous, and I’m giving the keynote speech at the BEYOND THE LOVE convention in Columbus in November, which is an unbelievably great honor – to have people think that I’ve got enough decent advice that they want me to kick off a convention devoted to making multiple relationships thrive.
So I guess watching people work, and optimizing how they work together.
I believe there will be a third book in the Mancer series scheduled for sometime next year. Will there be more books and do you also have other projects you’re working on?
The third is as far as I can see right now, but that’s not to say there won’t be more books – when I started FLEX, I didn’t think there’d be another book, but come the end I started to see where else the series could go. When I started THE FLUX, I was like, “This is it, this’ll close out everything,” and again as I wrote the final chapters I started to see the threads of a third book forming. So right now – I’m closing in on the end of Act One of FIX – I can’t imagine any more books in thisworld, but I’ve come to realize it’s like navigating through the fog. I only see about fifty feet ahead of me, if I’m lucky. There could be another seven books in this, or none – I won’t know until I get there.
I’m also working on a novel sequel-of-sorts to Sauerkraut Station, tentatively called SAVOR STATION, about a magnificent restaurant in a distant space station. But first? I gotta finish off FIX.
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Interview by Dag Rambraut – SFFWorld.com © 2015