Monday, April 29, 2013

The Italian Interview: Characters in Novels

I've been sidelined by the need for unexpected surgery, so I've chosen to delay the official launch of "The Witches' Cauldron", the fourth book in the Halos & Horns fantasy saga, until next month when I can more actively promote it. Meanwhile (as we say in fiction), you can pre-order the entire four-volume set at a $10 discount by clicking this link. All proceeds will go to my surgeon, whose scalpel slices deeper than any critic's pen, lol.

Since I am somewhat indisposed, I'm going to cheat this week and return to the Italian interview with a bit of cut and paste magic. Enjoy the exchange, below. I'll be back in May hawking "The Witches' Cauldron", so save up your shekels!

Q: Do you purposely write strong female characters?

Wow, that’s a good question. I mean, the way you phrased it. Do I set out to write strong female characters? No, I wouldn't say I have a feminist agenda. Many of my characters, like Angelique Ward and Nyx, are deities or supernaturally powered, so they are innately strong, regardless of their gender. And when I say strong, I don’t mean only physically, although I think physical strength enables one to be more assertive in nonphysical encounters.

A lot of their strength comes from who the character is. Sharon is a cop’s daughter, so she doesn't hesitate to draw a gun and shoot when Pandora stalks her. Chiyoko’s strength comes not only from being a vampire, but from her leadership position, as a Nosferatu, Inc. director, and we get a sense of her almost royal lineage. Valentina is a strong-willed, no-nonsense ex-KGB agent. I think the exchange that exemplified the strong female dynamic was the scene where Lilith, the succubus demoness vied against Angelique for the right to kidnap the infant Alaric. Lilith, who was also Adam’s wife before Eve, says “I have stood up to the first man, to angels, to God, and to a plethora of demons. You will not bar my way, Ancient One.” To which, Angelique replies, “I was ancient when you were created as a mate for Adam. I was ancient long before this planet we stand on was formed. You shall not defy me, Lilith.” This isn't a catfight; it’s two lionesses about to tangle. So no, my women characters aren't in the kitchen baking cookies.

Q: Which of your characters would you like to spend time with?

A: They’re all unique, so I think it would be entertaining to spend time with any of them. Watching the angel, Gabriel, and the demon, Lucifer, bicker would be a treat. Ditto for the changeling, Síofra and the emere, Asabi. The vampire Pandora would be fun, in a space cadet sort of way. If I were a kid, I’d hang with Artemus, the boy vampire, and Emma, the teen witch. A wizard like Merlin or Balthazar would be cool. I’d have a ton of questions for Metatron, the aspect of God, but I doubt he’d give me any clear answers I could understand.

Q: Which characters frighten you?

A: All the demons, of course, are scary. Of the vampires, I’d say Warren was the most vicious. Nathaniel Thornhill, the witch-hunter, is probably one of the most evil, sadistic characters in the series, other than Torquemada. Gen. Asad Hashim was human, but absolutely ruthless and murderous. But I think the characteristics that would frighten me the most are unpredictability combined with an unbalanced psyche, so Morgana le Fay and The Morrigan would fall into that category. They’re scary because they are in large part ruled by their emotions and act impulsively, so they might befriend you one minute and behead you the next.

Drusilla Twitch was one of my favorite scary characters to write. Who else could caress Remick’s face with her long, sharp fingernail and make him stiffen and turn pale? And she has these great one-liners. When Remick says he had nothing to do with the Empusae attack, she replies, “I realize that, Mr. Remick. That is why you are still breathing.” Succinct, if not subtle. When the bogarts tell her they’ve heard tales of her sibling’s animosity toward her, she asks if they’ve also heard tales of her kindness and mercy. When they admit they haven’t, she replies “That’s because there are no such tales” before destroying them. Even Morgana found Drusilla’s gnarled fingers crushing her larynx, her long sharp nails biting into her neck, and droplets of Morgana’s blood trickling down her neck within minutes of meeting her, as Drusilla asked, “Tell me who you are and why I might not wish to kill you.” Succinct, but not subtle.

Q: Would you consider yourself a plot-driven writer or a character-driven writer?

A: One of my writing friends and I have this debate all the time. The correct answer is you need both a strong plot and well-defined characters. My position is characterization that reveals the human condition trumps plot. I like to create unique characters with their own characteristics, foibles, and motivations and then place them together in a setting, sit back and take notes as they interact. Usually, the story writes itself from that point on, and I’m more the stenographer than author. That’s not to say they wander mapless throughout the pages without a plot. I draft a skeletal outline of the novel and each chapter, so I know where we’re headed and how we’ll get there.

Dialogue is extremely important. The characters’ words have to reflect who they are. If either of two characters could have made the statement, then the author hasn’t clearly defined his characters. Síofra is a cynical, ancient changeling, while Kaya is a sheltered, naïve, wide-eyed 10-year-old girl. When they converse, Kaya can’t make a cynical comment or appear too worldly. When they meet someone, Kaya is immediately trusting while Síofra is wary. This is who they are, and who they are determines how they will react in a given scenario. If you meet them in the woods, a bubbly Kaya will invite you home for dinner as Síofra casts an untrusting, wary eye on you.

Q: Have you ever regretted killing off a character?

A: I felt a twinge killing off Maudie, because she was such a likable character and I felt she had potential. But I realized some of that potential could be explored in other ways, such as flashbacks.

When it came to killing off a major character toward the end of the Halos and Horns arc, I did ask myself, Do you really want to kill off a major character? The character could have worked indefinitely as a staple to bring the characters into different plots, but in terms of advancing the story, I thought that character’s potential had been nearly depleted. The death created a new dynamic among some existing characters, and as the saga continues into the next arcs, I think it will lead to a healthier, evolving storyline.

Q: Which locale in Halos and Horns would you like to visit?

A: I’d love to prowl around Absalonis’ curio shop in Copenhagen and see the range of mystic artifacts he has. Actually, I’d love to return to Copenhagen and prowl around the city. (Laughs). I had some memorable times there in my younger days. The Dreamscape – walking through people’s dreams. That could be fun, or terrifying, especially if I landed in my accountant’s dreams – have you seen Donald Duck in Mathamagic Land? Heaven and Hell, of course. And Camelot. As a child, I wanted to be Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Italian Interview, Part Two

(Continuing the conversation from last time)

Q: Who was you favorite character to write?

A: That’s hard to say; I enjoyed them all. I think which ever one I was writing at the time became my favorite. Of course, it’s always more fun to write the naughtier characters. I found myself more drawn to Lucifer than Gabriel, especially in the beginning. An angel is often presumed, incorrectly if one studies the mythology, to be the personification of perfection. Characterization is best demonstrated by one’s flaws, and perhaps, a story that shows how those flaws are overcome or dealt with. In Gabriel’s case, I had to instill a flaw – doubt. That’s possibly the greatest flaw an angel could have; it threatens the whole fabric of a reality structured on belief.

Lucifer, on the other hand, is the guy born on the wrong side of the tracks. I've always contemplated how fortunate I was to be born in America, a land of wealth and opportunity, and not in Rwanda or Haiti. Where you’re born is the luck of the draw; it’s something you have no control over. Lucifer, was a demon born in Hell but he aspires for a better existence. To obtain that, he has to earn it, raising the nature versus nurture question. Are we who we are because of genetics or our environment? If we change our environment, can we change, through exercise of free will, or is our fate predestined? That’s a theme throughout the series, and not just for Lucifer.

Morgana struck me as a very flawed character. She starts out as a healer and savior and ends as a villainess. Her father was a brute. Her mother died while she was relatively young and she blamed her half-brother Arthur for her death, once she found out his birth was the cause. She becomes consumed with hatred and desirous of revenge against Arthur, Uther, and Merlin. She sleeps with her half-brother, which would send most people into therapy for years, and is overly obsessed with her son, Mordred. She is rejected by Lancelot and her mentor, Nimue and only finds acceptance among the Fae – and even then, probably more from fear than admiration. She’s haunted by nightmarish patchwork visions she doesn't always understand that warp her sense of reality. Is it any wonder she gradually descends from innocence into darkness?

The comic relief characters were a blast to write. Pandora is especially fun because you never know what’s going to come out of her mouth. Both Pandora and Síofra are insouciant characters, but Pandora is lighthearted, a bit of a space cadet. While Pandora approaches life in a carefree, cheerful manner, Síofra is blithely unconcern with anyone other than herself.

Q: Your characters often formed disparate pairings.

A: I found I could achieve both good dialogue and interesting plotting by matching characters with opposite attributes. Teaming up an angel and a demon; pairing the selfish, corrupted changeling Síofra with the innocent, naïve Kaya; or the innocent, naïve white angel Cassiopeia with the more worldly, black emere, Asabi. The level-headed Sharon and the scatter-brained Pandora; the Twitch sisters: Calliope, representing youth and purity, Samantha, representing maternal maturity, and Drusilla, aged and ruthless.

Q: Or Remick and Callaghan. That struck me as an unlikely combination.

A: Literally the Odd Couple. The chauffeur and the tramp. But they worked surprisingly well together.

Q: And in the Middle East, of all places. I noticed you use a variety of locales in the series.

A: Las Vegas serves as the home base, but parts of the book take place in Heaven and Hell. I incorporated global mythologies into the series, including many Japanese legends, so there are scenes in Japan, too. Some of the time travel takes the reader to Camelot, so England is visited, as well.

Q: But not Italy?

A: You can tell your readers that oversight will be corrected in future story arcs. I’m not sure how I would incorporate Italy into the series, but I did have some Roman vampires in the first book and some of the enchantments use pigeon Latin.

Q: Pigeon Latin?

A: It’s been a long time since I studied Latin, so I’m sure my cases were probably flawed, but fortunately few readers will notice. I did have someone correct me on the Hebrew, though. That wasn't entirely my fault. Hebrew is read from right-to-left. I wrote it correctly, but the software program flipped the letters. Fortunately, the proofreader caught it. But it’s very hard to find a proficient Latin proofreader.

Q: (Laughter). That would not be a problem in Italy.

A: (Laughter). In that case, you’re hired.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Italian Interview, Part One

Halos & Horns has become one of my passions and I never tire of talking about it, or the craft of writing in general. Which is fortunate, because I've given a lengthy interview to an Italian journalist. I've secured permission to print the salient portions dealing with Halos & Horns here, which I shall do over the next two installments of my blog. I don’t know when the full Italian version will appear or how much of what you read here might be edited out. Of course, even after it’s published, I won’t be able to read it, since it’ll be in Italian, lol.

This is not merely an attempt to fill blog space while I’m writing novels (although it will give me a bit of breathing space and you something entertaining to read). What I particularly enjoyed about this interview was, unlike many American interviewers who rattle off canned questions (“Who was your greatest influence?”), this interviewer had actually read my books and posed intelligent questions about specific themes, plotting, and characterization. So, I had a chance to talk about something I’m passionate about, and now I get the chance to share that passion with you over the next few installments.

Q: Halos & Horns draws concepts from diverse mythologies. What are the philosophical underpinnings of the themes in the series?

A: You've actually raised two questions there, so let me tackle them in order. I didn't want to write just another vampire and werewolf book, so I combed through the legends and myths of many cultures to bring my characters and creatures to life. Ancient philosophers postulated truth and reality are perceived differently from diverse points of view and no one viewpoint is the sole truth. In that vein, all these myths coexist within the universe I have created. Rather than contradicting each other, they complement one another. In the Halos & Horns universe -- or multiverse, as I like to think of it -- African and Native American legends blend seamlessly with Japanese, Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, Eastern European supernatural legends, and Judeo-Christian mythos. At one point, I incorporated the Hindu god Chitragupta into the storyline. All of these myths were, or are still, held as religious dogma by substantial populations. The Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons were the religions of their respective day and taken quite seriously by the populace. Zeus, Jupiter, and Odin were prayed to and worshiped as devoutly and with the same reverence as many do God and Jesus today. So in my saga, they are all given equal weight and veracity; there is no “correct” religion. Instead, all the belief constructs are part of a greater scheme.

Q: So today’s religions are tomorrow’s mythologies. Would you say moral relativism was one of your major themes?

A: That’s definitely a theme explored in the series. On the most basic level, at the outset I toy with the themes of good and evil by introducing an angel and a demon as my primary protagonists. “What is good, and what is evil?” is a theme I've addressed in several of my works, especially my flash fiction series, A Matter of Perspective. Here, I focused on the concepts of predetermination versus free will. Does one choose to be good or evil, or is that choice already made for him? It’s like the nature versus nurture argument. Can a demon change his stripes and choose a different path or is he destined from birth to remain an embodiment of evil? Can an angel, who has known only the most idyllic of environments and has never been exposed to temptation, be considered inherently “good” or is he merely a naïve and sheltered being? How will an angel change when removed from paradise and placed in an earthly world of human imperfection and sin, and his belief system – all he has been led to believe is true – is challenged, or indeed, refuted?

Societal norms dictate right and wrong as absolutes, whereas moral relativism holds morality is relative, not universal. What one culture deems appropriate another might consider abhorrent. The ancient Greeks cremated their dead, while some Indians ate their dead to absorb the deceased’s attributes. The Greeks would have been horrified by such cannibalism and branded the Indians as savages, while the Indians would have viewed the Greeks’ burning of the dead as sacrilege. It’s all relative. My vampires and other supernatural creatures live both in the modern world -- where murder is aberrant and sinful -- and within a preternatural society that sees nothing wrong with killing people to survive on their blood. By any definition, the vampire is a serial killer. Does that make every vampiric character evil? If you or I killed on a daily basis, we’d likely be considered evil, but what if we killed for food? Do we become evil by eating a hamburger? Or is it a matter of moral relativism?

Q: But how do you portray that dichotomy in a fantasy tale?

A: One way I illustrated that moral ambivalence was a scene in which a vampire character, faced with a mortal loved one bleeding to death, is simultaneously appalled by, and attracted to, the gushing blood.

Q: The character is horrified by the impending death of a loved one, yet viscerally stimulated by the blood?

A: Exactly. Those vampires who chose to interact with humans, retaining old bonds from their pre-vampire days or forming new ties with “breathers”, must reconcile emotional attachments to their food. Some vampires, like the ancient Artemus and the cold-hearted Valentina, have completely severed their ties to humanity and view humans as food. But it’s a lot tougher for newer vampires like Sharon, who still have living relatives and human friends, to rationalize what they must do to survive. In the chapter Secrets Unburied, Sharon reflects on the people whose blood she’s stolen and those she’s sucked the life out of, saying, “ I've done things I know Dad would look down on.” In The Pandora Chronicles, Pandora exclaims, “My family… my friends… no one is safe around me. You've turned me into a monster!” There is a huge chasm separating the societal norms of humans and those of vampires.

Q: What was the most difficult part of the series for you to write?

A: I think the hardest part was trying to write about evil without describing it. Readers come to the series with a sanitized version of evil gleaned from media and popular culture: the bad guys tie damsels to railroad tracks, rob banks, and shoot people. That’s not true evil. The problem is, real evil is offensive to most normal people. They don’t want to be exposed to it and, rather than deriving pleasure from reading about it, they are turned off and repelled by it. Nazis make great movie villains, but films never show Dr. Mengele’s horrific, torturous experiments on people or some of the more gruesome aspects of the torture chambers of the Spanish Inquisition. I recently saw a documentary on the horrors being perpetrated today in the Congo: in the first 10 minutes, I watched a fleeing child sliced in half by a machete and a father ordered to rape his daughter. When he refused, his captors poked out his eyes and demanded his sons rape their sister. Afterwards, they gang-raped the girl, sliced off her hands, and cut out her tongue. These remorseless villains were, incredibly, the least “evil” presented in the one-hour documentary. I found it difficult to watch the entire display of man’s inhumanity to man, but I forced myself to, so I might have a true understanding of the depths of evil. I persevered through the next hour by reminding myself all I had to do was watch it; these victims had to live it.

Q: What you describe is grisly and inhumane.

A: Yes, and therein lies the dilemma. No one wants to envision true horrors. If you force your readers to confront them, you risk alienating and losing your readership. I was approached by one reader who told me what a sick and perverted person I was for dreaming up the torture devices owned by the witch hunter Nathaniel Thornhill in the chapter, Heaven Can Be Hotter Than Hell. I had to explain I had not been creative enough to dream them up and that they had been real devices used during the Spanish Inquisition, sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

Q: There’s that moral relativism again.

A: I guess so. Torture isn't perverse and evil if Jack Bauer, George W. Bush, or the Catholic Church does it, but writing about it makes an author depraved and profane. When it came time to write one of the final chapters, where Gabriel confronts the ultimate embodiment of true evil, the demon Torquemada, I had to balance writing an antagonist as abhorrent as possible yet keeping the sensitivities of my readers in mind. That was a difficult writing exercise.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The 200th Post - Where's Keith?

Perceptive perusers of this periodical will have perceived a paucity of posts of late. OK, enough alliteration. I haven't been posting as much lately, so on the occasion of this, my 200th post, let me tell you what I've been up to instead.

I've finished The Witches' Cauldron, the fourth book in the Halos & Horns fantasy saga and am looking forward to the eBook coming out in late April and the paperback the following month. I've completed the first chapter of Fangs & Fur, the second arc in the series. This arc will focus on the vampires and werewolves introduced in Halos & Horns. The first chapter, The Pandora Chronicles, reveals Pandora's origin and the secret of the psychic bond she shares with Sharon Mordecai. We also learn how Pandora and Sharon became vampires and how old Pandora really is. It's a poignant and exciting flashback populated by gangsters and vampires.

I've also begun work on my long-promised Young Adult novel, The 25th Hour. Mackenzie Mortimer is a typical junior high geek. He’s shy, awkward, a bit clumsy, doesn’t finish his homework and is always late for class. There’s never enough time to do everything he needs to do; after all, there are only 24 hours in a day. But when Mac finds his grandfather’s pocket watch buried inside a trunk, he discovers his days have an extra hour. According to the eccentric inventor’s journal, the pocket watch can add up to 60 minutes to a single day by freezing time around whoever holds it and presses its stem. At first, Mac uses the watch for childish pranks on friends, revenge on the school bully, and to spy on his crush, Vanessa, daughter of the wealthiest man in town. But when deranged teens show up at school with rifles, Mac realizes every second is one tick of the clock away from his class halls becoming a kill zone. Mac saves the day, but discovers using the watch takes its toll on the holder: each extra hour is subtracted from the holder’s lifespan. He resolves to dispose of it so neither he nor anyone else will ever be at risk from it. Just as he finally builds up the nerve to ask Vanessa on a date, she is kidnapped in front of him. The kidnappers give Mac their ransom demand to relay to Vanessa’s father – one million dollars in cash, in 24 hours. Vanessa’s father refuses, saying paying the ransom will only encourage more kidnap attempts. As the only witness, Mac pieces together the clues to track down the kidnappers. Should he tell the police what he has deduced and hope they take a teenager’s detective work seriously; risk a police shootout that could leave Vanessa wounded or killed; or retrieve the pocket watch and lose another hour of his life? Time is running out… but fortunately, Mackenzie Mortimer has few more minutes than anyone else.

Additionally, I've been compiling material for Cub, my nonfiction book filled with celebrity interviews and photographs. I expect to be working on this project throughout 2014. Additionally, I'm researching new material for inclusion in the next edition of Issues In Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law. I've written a number of new short stories that I anticipate will be released in a paperback collection in late 2013 or 2014.

I'm about four chapters into my science fiction time travel novel, Justin Tyme. In a desperate bid to stop the government from shutting down the overbudgetted time travel program, the headstrong, young assistant scientist sends himself back in time to prove the project is viable. Unfortunately, the project crew hasn't solved the problem of bringing chrononauts back yet. Fearful Tyme might inadvertently change history, the Defense Secretary orders his own agent be sent after Tyme. Elizabeth Madison, a 26-year-old historian and martial arts expert, is under secret orders from the secretary: if Justin Tyme attempts to change history through some well-intentioned act fraught with inconceivable consequences, Madison must dissuade him if possible; interfere with his attempts to do so; or, as a last resort, terminate him. They're a time traveling team, where he's the brains, she's the brawn, and their survival may depend on each other... if she isn't forced to kill him first.

Finally, I'm working on a new urban fantasy novel featuring Esme Trout, an amoral succubus who feeds off the life essence of humans. It replenishes her strength and vitality, heals her injuries, and preserves her eternal youth. However, her meals sometimes leave loose ends to resolve.

In a somewhat ironic side note, during the time I've been posting less, my blog’s readership has increased, with older posts getting lots of new hits. Perhaps readers like the new "less is more approach". Or maybe they need their daily fix and are willing to scrounge among the archives for reruns. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the idea of gaining more readers by writing less ;)