Interview with Wayne Batson
By Kat Goodwin
1) You had a rather unusual start as a fiction writer. You’ve had a long career as a U.S. middle school teacher, in particular advocating reading programs, and it was your students who urged you to turn one of the stories you’d done for a reading program into a full length YA fantasy novel, The Door Within, the first in the The Door Within trilogy. Your first audience came to you. How has this effected your writing career, balancing with your teaching, in doing the very popular The Door Within series and other works? Has it shaped your novels like the Pirate Adventure series, and the portal fantasy series The Berinfell Prophecies that you did with collaborator Christopher Hopper?
You're right that my audience came to me. It was early in my teaching career (1st or 2nd year, I think) and I realized that the county curriculum didn't really come with the kind of reading materials needed to demonstrate the content we were teaching. And the book closet was full of old books and stories that kids couldn't relate to. So I started writing short stories, sometimes just short scenes, to use as tools in the classroom. And then came the 1st person narrative unit, where students had to write a full length short story. My kids basically dared me to write a short story too. So I did. It was called "The Faith of a Child," and it was 17 pages, written in green ink on loose leaf paper. Later, that became The Door Within Trilogy.
Since then, I've continued to teach middle schoolers for 20 years, and they always--ALWAYS--have an impact on my books. I field-test my novels with my kids first. They are intelligent, capable readers and I cherish their feedback. When I write, I keep them in mind. What thrills them? What bores them? What makes them scratch their collective head? What hits them between the eyes and makes them think about the deeper things of life?
For the Pirate stories, Isle of Swords & Isle of Fire, I was aiming for a broader audience: middle school to adult, really anyone who liked the Pirates of the Caribbean movies but wanted a little more substance. One of the main characters is the Isle books was born into existence for my students and all my YA readers in general. Cat is his name, and he has trauma-induced amnesia. He doesn't know who he is, and he's got a bit of a fatalistic thought that maybe his identity is out of his hands. As he discovers his name and his heritage, he struggles with whether he's doomed to become like others in his lineage, especially his ruthless father. I wanted Cat to discover, and my readers to know, that there is hope to overcome vicious cycles and horrific pasts.
For the Berinfell Prophecies, Christopher Hopper and I wanted to think more about an upper teen audience and the struggles they go through. Christopher is a Youth Pastor and Conference Speaker, so he has a lot of experience in this area. We both recognize that kids are hurting. We wanted a story that might help them to know they are not alone, and that it is possible to endure and have victory.
2) And now you are beginning a very ambitious epic fantasy series that is for a crossover audience of YA readers, older teens and the adult fiction market as well, set in a complex world filled with seven different humanoid races, The Dark Sea Annals, starting with The Sword in the Stars. It has very intense battle scenes and a story of redemption and prophecy that spans years. How did you come up with this idea and what made you aim it for a larger audience, including older readers? Was it difficult to strike a balance?
The Dark Sea concept came about in two parts quite a long time ago. In fact, I was planning to launch into The Sword in the Stars right after The Door Within Trilogy, but my publisher came to me to see if I wanted to try Pirate Fiction. How could I turn that down? Two books later, one of my best friends, author Christopher Hopper, and I were talking about how fun it would be to coauthor a book. We were shocked when we proposed the concept to the publisher and they agreed. So...another two books later, I was finally able to get to this story. The first part of the Dark Sea Annals to come about was actually Ariana's tale. This young woman experienced a traumatic invasion on her village, saw her parents taken away, and had to raise herself from the age of 9. The second part was this washed up, besotted assassin who's basically down to his last straw, hoping against hope that there's something to this legendary Halfainin who could absolve him of his crippling guilt. About 5 years ago, I had an eureka moment where I realized these were actually two parts to a greater story.
The story itself is really what forced me to write for a slightly older audience. Alastair, the assassin, for instance, battles an addiction to a substance called Witchdrale, and real addictions are ugly, painful things. While younger readers can certainly grasp that reality, living through it in the text may be a little too intense--though, of course, there is absolutely NO glamorizing of the addiction. It's a hideous experience for Alastair. And to be truthful, my original publisher was somewhat instrumental in helping me aim for an older audience. The publisher underwent a kind of internal reorganization, leading to changes in their readership age brackets. What once was 12-16 years became 10-14 years, and this story is a bit beyond that realm.
It's not terribly hard to strike a balance between these reading audiences. Given the fantasy genre, there's still plenty in The Sword in the Stars for readers who might not like the darker subject matter. The world of Myriad is expansive and diverse with races such as the flying Windborne and the water-breathing Marinaens. I also think the bestiary will appeal to lots of readers. I have more creatures than you can shake a broadsword at. Book 2 in the series, The Errant King, will have a ridiculous number of creatures! Having a lot of fun with that right now. And finally, I think the messages in the whole series will appeal to lots of readers. Sure there's an element of the unassuming hero, as well as the "chosen one" motif. But I think I've twisted them enough to keep them fresh. And also there's a universal message about each of us wrestling with our own Pandora's Box of evil--that we ought not to open that door and what happens when we do. I've been told that people hate me because of the "mystery bombs," cliffhangers, and suspense techniques that I use--and I say, GREAT! That is entirely what I want to do to my readers. My stories should reach out of the pages, grab you by the collar, and yank you in!
3) The first book in the series, The Sword in the Stars, takes place when High King Aravel is on the throne of the land of Anglinore, a country on the brink of war with a race called the Gorracks. Alastair Coldhollow is an assassin working for High King Aravel's identical twin brother, King Morlan, and his secret police, the Wolfguard. But after an especially bloody event, Alastair faces a crisis of conscience. Tell us about how Alastair comes to believe that he’s part of the prophecy in finding the Halfainin, the Pathwalker, whose arrival signals great change.
Alastair Coldhollow becomes Captain of the Wolfguard and, as such, he leads raid after slaughtering raid against any nation whose political or religious beliefs conflict with King Morlan's ambitions. On one such raid, Alastair battles an old friend and kills him. The wife who has just witnessed the murder is overwhelmed with grief, but offers Alastair forgiveness on the spot. Alastair spares her and her child and flees Morlan's forces. He becomes a hermit, drowning his guilt in Witchdrale, but always remembering that night and the woman who forgave him. He eventually seeks her out. She takes him in and begins to teach him about the First One and why it is that she could forgive Alastair of such deeds. They discover together that too many facets of Alastair's life mirror the prophecy concerning the Man of Ice, the one who would herald the coming Halfainin.
4) Alastair’s mission gets complicated when a baby unexpectedly comes into his care. Is this the key to his redemption or an obstacle?
I can't really reveal the answers to this question yet. It is one of the main questions of The Sword in the Stars. But I will say this: the child will bring out the worst in Alastair and force him to confront some of the blackest realities about himself.
5) Lochlan is High King Aravel's son and he also finds himself on a difficult path, one that leads outside of Anglinore. What sort of things will he be facing?
Lochlan is young, just in his early 20's. First, he has to face the responsibilities of being High King. No easy feat. Politics, pomp, and circumstance do not sit well with restless Loch. In Book 2 in the series, The Errant King, we will see Loch attempt a solution to these early challenges: he will go errant. In other words, Loch will go live in the different corners of Myriad for as much as a month at a time. He's so naturally talented that he can assume almost any identity: blacksmith, alchemist, minstrel, hunter, etc. This is what he truly loves...being among his people, as an equal, not a superior. But this temporary cure will lead to a massive new challenge. Loch will be forced to mount a rebellion against his own kingdom.
6) You mentioned that one of the stories you had in mind was Alastair's and the other was about a young woman named Ariana and you realized they fit together into a larger picture. Ariana's journey involves her with Lochlan. How is her tragic past going to impact on this very diverse world?
If you've lost a parent at a young age, you know how it impacts the way you look at life. Ariana lost both of her parents and watched it happen. She's now fiercely independent but secretly searching for protection from all the unknowns of life. She will struggle with relationships and keep her distance. She will also reject the political authority of her village, and rightfully so--for they seek to keep women in their "rightful place."
7) You’ve mentioned Pandora’s Box in talking about this series and obviously there are some connections to the Christian gospels within it as well. Can you talk about how you’ve balanced the thematic and mythic aspects of the story with the action and war plot elements?
The story itself has a way of balancing theme and action. Too heavy on theme, and it feels preachy. Too heavy on action, and it feels like theme-park fluff. As a reader, I don't want to be "forced" to think about deep issues, nor do I want the to turn the last page of the book and say, "Well that was nice," and never think about it ever again. The best balance should happen organically and be driven by the characters. In The Sword in the Stars, Alastair Coldhollow is in an all out war with a long-time addiction. High King Aravel Stormgarden, meanwhile, struggles with lethal doses of sibling rivalry. And, in the end, he fails to understand the threat posed by his twin brother Morlan. Myridian society itself has forgotten its foundations and become complacent while enemies clamor at its borders. But all this happens within the context of action and suspense. Creatures attack, assassins track their prey, long-time allies turn treacherous, and cataclysmic wars rage. I hope I've struck the right balance. But of course, The Sword in the Stars is only the beginning of a BIG story.
8) Tell us a little about the Red Queen, who is sounding scarier and scarier. Is she a bigger threat than King Morlan and the Wolfguard?
Physically, she's a lot bigger than Morlan. Several stories bigger, lol. Raudrim-Quevara, the Red Queen, is in many ways a greater threat, but on a somewhat different scale. Morlan's danger was subversive and, like a cancer, his deeds eat away at Myriad. Sure, Morlan goes on the offensive and causes some major problems. But the people of Myriad have never seen anything like the Red Queen. She comes from a region that is completely cut off from the known world you'll read about in The Sword in the Stars. And where she might have once had an inkling of humanity, now she is utterly bankrupt. She is driven by impulses that she no longer understands or resists. Her actions in The Errant King are going to turn the tide blood red and leave Myriad changed forever.
9) Which of the races you’ve invented for Myriad is your favorite so far?
So far, I'd have to say I love the Willowfolk, kind of playful sprite-like beings who know the songs of creation. They can with just a few notes sing you to sleep or make you laugh hysterically. I'm also fond of the Windborne, a race of flying warriors. They are enigmatic--even to me--and noble. But their short lifespans lead to some odd cultural philosophies that frankly vex me to no end. In The Errant King, I'll introduce you to the Spriggan race. They are quickly become favorites as well.
10) The Dark Sea Annals is an ambitious, multi-book series, but are you planning to work on other projects as well, in adult or children’s? Will there be more Door or Pirates books in the near future?
I am currently working on a supernatural thriller series for adult readers. The first book is called Ghost, and I hope to release it on Kindle/eBooks this summer. I think readers who like Butcher's Dresden Files, Lee Child's Jack Reacher books, and Frank Peretti's Angelic Warfare books will get a big kick out of Ghost.
11) If there’s one thing you’d particularly like readers to know about The Dark Sea Annals, what would it be?
Reader should know that this series will take a number of fantasy clichés and dump them right on their lazy rears. You're going to think you've read it all before and then sit straight up and say, "Whoa!"
12) You used to be in a rock band called Contagious. Can fans check out any of their music? Do you play it for your students?
Ah, I wish the music got to that level. We were a group of best friends who loved heavy metal and hard rock and played for the neighborhood. We did get pretty tight toward the late 80's, but life happened and the band fizzled. We're all still great friends though.
Thanks to Wayne Batson for sharing with us about his new fantasy series The Dark Sea Annals. Be sure to check out the first novel of the series, The Sword in the Stars, and his YA fiction as well.