Wednesday, October 19, 2016

JD Byrne, Master of Fantasy

The author of the week is JD Bryne, who writes in the greatest of genres: fantasy.

JD Byrne was born and raised around Charleston, West Virginia, before spending seven years in Morgantown getting degrees in history and law from West Virginia University. He's practiced law for more than 15 years, writing briefs where he has to stick to real facts and real law. In his fiction, he gets to make up the facts, take or leave the law, and let his imagination run wild. He lives outside Charleston with his wife and one-eyed dog.





Interview

1. What are your biggest literary influences? Favorite authors and why?

I’m always a little uncomfortable talking about influences because I’m one of those people who believes you’re influenced by everything you read (or hear or watch or . . .). So it’s hard to point to particular authors and call them influences without giving short shrift to a host of others who have influenced you (for good or for ill).

Favorites much easier to handle with the qualification that just because somebody is a favorite author of mine doesn’t mean I actually write like them (or even try). My old school favorites, ones I grew up reading, include Douglas Adams (love Hitchhiker’s Guide in all its forms), Kurt Vonnegut, and Ray Bradbury. More recently, I’ve fallen in love with work by Neil Gaiman (thanks to my wife), George R.R. Martin (ditto), Margaret Atwood, and John Scalzi.

2 What are you reading at the moment? Would you recommend it to readers of this blog? Why?

Right now I’m actually reading nonfiction - Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. It’s about the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1920s affirming the ability of states to sterilize the “feeble minded.” It’s one of those cases where, from the distance of history, the Court got it terribly wrong. The book dives very deeply into the people involved with that case and the proceedings themselves. Fascinating and disheartening all at the same time. I’d certainly recommend to people interested in the area.

The last piece of fiction I read was The Rise of Endymion, the last of Dan Simmons’s Hyperion books. I wouldn’t recommend it - it’s overlong, undoes some of what’s come before in the series, and has a horribly annoying narrator. But if you’re a science fiction fan, and you’ve never read Hyperion or Fall of Hyperion (they’re really one long story), I highly recommend those. The first is a sci-fi take on the Canterbury Tales. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

3. Do you think people have misconceptions about the speculative fiction? Why do you think it is a worthwhile genre?

I do think lots of people have misconceptions about what speculative fiction is (or where the boundaries of it are) and whether it’s a “worthy” genre. I think you see that in authors with literary reputations who dip their toes into fantasy or science fiction but insist that’s not really what they’re doing (I’ve written about that before here). As much as I enjoy her work, Atwood is a prime culprit in this, insisting that books involving future dystopias and genetic engineering aren’t sci-fi because they don’t have laser guns and space ships. I think the reluctance of authors like that to embrace the genre leads to a perception among some readers that it’s a backwater, good for cheap entertainment but not much else.

Not that there’s anything wrong with cheap entertainment! I’m perfectly happy to tell people a good, engaging story and walk away. Having said that, speculative fiction provides so many tools to allow writers to examine basic questions about what it means to be human (or not) that it can really go as deep and thoughtful as any other genre. It’s the ability to cast off the shackles of reality that, ironically, gives speculative fiction its ability to speak to our deepest humanity. All that makes it as worthwhile as any other genre.

4. Could you tell us a bit about your most recent book?

I’m currently in the process of finishing a fantasy trilogy. The first two books, The Water Road and The Endless Hills, were released earlier this year. The final one, The Bay of Sins, should be out by the end of the year.

It’s fundamentally about a secret that’s uncovered and what people choose to do with it. Do they make the truth known, even if it means ripping society apart? Do they try to rally an oppressed group to seek justice even if it might spiral into revenge? All that set in a world that isn’t our own (there are no humans, for instance), but also not like most fantasy settings (there’s no magic and armies fight with gunpowder, not swords).

I’ve been blogging about the trilogy all year on Water Road Wednesdays. You can find the list of those posts here.

5. Of all the characters you have created, which is your favorite and why?

I think my favorite characters are the ones I don’t really know much about going into the writing process and then reveal themselves as I work on a book. That pretty much eliminates main characters from this question, but I’m fond of them. Ben Potter from Moore Hollow has a lot of me in him (car guy, Marillion fan, eternal skeptic), so he has that going for him.

The best example I can think of for the situation where a character really grows into something unexpected is a woman named Mida Innis. Mida shows up for one scene in The Endless Hills, mostly as a way to show Antrey the horrors of war. When I was planning out The Bay of Sins, I decided to go back to Mida and see what she was up to following the events of The Endless Hills. I decided she had a story that needed to be told, which entailed coming up with a much better idea of the kind of person she was (and would become) than I ever had when I introduced her.

6. Do you have a day job in addition to being a writer?  If so, what do you do during the day? 

I do have a day job, one that thankfully allows me to write a lot, although it’s very different from writing novels - I’m an attorney. I’ve spent the last fourteen years in a Federal Public Defender office, where I do research and work on appeals. That means I write a lot of briefs and other legal pleadings. They’re not like writing fiction, obviously, but by the time I started writing fiction I had spent quite a bit of effort on becoming a better writer, on self editing and making sure I was connecting with readers.

Obviously, when you’re writing a brief or something similar you’re stuck with a set of fixed facts (often very ugly ones) and limited in what you can write by the applicable law. One of the reasons I enjoy writing fiction - fantasy and the like, especially - is that I can step outside those boundaries and let my imagination roam free.

7. Tell us a little about your plans for the future.  Do you have any other books in the works?

I’ve got so many other books in the works I don’t know quite which direction I’ll be heading in next. The things I’ve published so far - Moore Hollow and The Water Road trilogy - were things that had been in the works for a long time. Once The Bay of Sins is finished I’ll be looking at a (relatively) blank slate for the first time in a while. It’s both exciting and terrifying at the same time.

One thought is to start a series that’s sort of John Grisham meets The X-Files, about an attorney who gets swept up into all kinds of paranormal activity. I actually started a book along those lines for NaNoWriMo years ago, and I like the idea of finishing it up and expanding on it. It may even dovetail into the world of Moore Hollow eventually.

The other idea is to dive into one of several stand alone novels with concepts I’ve flushed out a bit. One involves a thief trying to bring magic back to a world where is absence has created an environmental crisis. Another is a sci-fi story about woman who seeks asylum in a repressive place and is called to account for not speaking out against it. But then there’s the one about the poor schmuck who gets an alien tattoo on a strange world that drastically complicities his life . . . or the one that involves a humorous exploration of the afterlife.

Like I said, so many ideas, so little time!

Where can we find you online? (please cut and paste links):

The Water Road


Two women are about to expose a terrible secret that will turn their world upside down.
For centuries the great river known as the Water Road separated the Altrerians in the north from the

Antrey is a woman without a country, the daughter of a Neldathi mother and an Altrerian father. She’s found a role for herself in Tolenor, the headquarters of the Triumvirate, that's given her access to a secret the alliance has kept for generations. When she finds it, she explodes with rage and embarks on a quest to find justice for the Neldathi people.

Strefer is a reporter without a story, desperately working the streets of Tolenor for any kind of lead. When Antrey flees the city, Strefer slips in and discovers her uncovered secret, stained with blood and fury. It’s the story of a lifetime, one powerful forces want to keep her from telling. With the help of a renegade Sentinel, Strefer sets out for a mythical city in hopes she can make the world listen to the truth.

Together, they’ll inflame the passions of a people and set the world alight. The Water Road - first book of The Water Road trilogy.

Neldathi in the south. When the Neldathi clans united and struck out across the river, the nations of Altreria formed an alliance, the Triumvirate, to drive them back. For more than a hundred years after, the Triumvirate kept the Neldathi barbarians at bay, fighting amongst themselves across the Water Road.

Excerpt

(in this scene, Antrey has discovered the secret that's going to change this world forever):

When she reached the end of that page, Antrey sat back in the chair, stunned. She read it again, to ensure that she knew precisely what it said. The Triumvirate, in order to protect itself, would set the Neldathi clans against each other, arranging a series of civil wars tied to fabricated, or exaggerated, religious disputes.

“That’s very clever,” she said to herself, recognizing that the strategy made a certain degree of sense when divorced from any concerns about right and wrong. “Keep your enemies fighting each other. That way, they can’t fight you. If any one side prevails it
 still benefits you, since whoever is left after the conflict will be weakened in the long run.” But she could not set aside the anger building inside her at the implementation of such a plan. She sat back in the chair and stared out the large window across from the desk. “By creating conflict where there is none, you sacrifice the lives of your enemies for your own comfort.”

Antrey knew too well of the wars between the clans. Although she knew that the stereotype of the brutal Neldathi barbarians that populated many of Alban’s books was not accurate, she could not avoid the fact that the clans fought each other regularly. The battles were fierce and, in some cases, lasted for days. Even the brief raids were terrifying. Antrey remembered seeing members of her clan carried away in such raids, taken for who knows what purpose. She remembered how the Speakers told of horrible things that one clan did to another, in the name of the gods, and how the other clan would respond in kind. Most of all, she remembered that the death and violence of those battles visited not just the warriors, but the old and young, the weak and the ill. That those she saw brutalized did not think of her as one of them did not mean she had not been heartbroken by their fate and furious at those who had caused it.

But it was only a proposal, right? Surely the Grand Council would not agree to such a ruthless policy being carried out in its name. Antrey leaned forward and turned the page to a brief summary of the debates about the proposal. They shocked her. The speeches were peppered with references to the Neldathi “barbarians,” “savages,” and “animals.” One Council member argued that “these brutes are going to fight anyone they can find, why not let them fight each other? If I hold a spear which may slip and pierce someone by accident, should I not point it at my enemy rather than my friend?” No one spoke up against the proposal. Not a single member of the Grand Council argued against it. No brave soul stood up and argued that, whatever threat the Neldathi might legitimately pose, they were sentient beings who should not be lied to and set upon one another like dogs.

By the time the votes were taken, there was no doubt about the outcome. There, in the neat script in the small red leather book, it was recorded that each of the nine members of the Grand Council voted in favor of the proposal. All agreed to purchase their own security with Neldathi blood, the blood of women, children, the aged, and anyone else.
 Antrey sat back in the chair and closed her eyes. Rather than weep, she sat and shook with fury, unable to get up. Clouds shifted outside and sunlight began to flow in from the balcony. It burned her face, but she did nothing to avoid it. She wanted to explode in a hundred different directions.

If you like what you've read, please comment and buy the book here: