Interview with Courtney Schafer
For today’s post I present to you an interview I’ve had with Courtney Schafer, author of The Shattered Sigil trilogy.
F.I.: Welcome on Fantastical Imaginations, Courtney. Let’s start with your love for books. Where and when did you get your love for the genre of fantasy?
I’ve loved reading fantasy (and science fiction too) ever since I can remember. From fairy tales, Narnia, Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Water Babies, and Kipling’s Jungle Books, I went right on to Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia McKillip, Madeleine L’Engle, Jane Yolen, and a host of other excellent YA fantasy authors. It didn’t take long as a kid before I started raiding the adult fantasy shelves of my library as well, discovering authors like David Eddings, Peter Beagle, C.J. Cherryh, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and many more. My love of fantasy has only expanded with age, and it remains my favorite genre because of its freedom of storytelling and scope of imagination.
F.I.: Like you said in the exchange of mails we’ve had before the interview, you and I have similar taste in High Fantasy. My favorite books are The Wheel Of Time series. Now what would you call your favorite book of all time?
Like you, I have a favorite series rather than a single favorite book: Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. The books are shelved in historical fiction, but I’d argue they qualify equally well as historical fantasy, thanks to the suggestion of clairvoyant mental powers in certain characters. The first book in the series, The Game of Kings, is set in 16th century Scotland and follows the efforts of Francis Crawford of Lymond, accused traitor and outlaw, to redeem his reputation and foil a plot against the throne. Lymond is a terrific character: frighteningly intelligent, sharp-tongued, a gifted musician and actor, yet with faults as deep as his gifts. But Dunnett’s skill doesn’t only lie in characterization; she has an astounding ability to create a multi-layered plot that fits together as seamlessly and beautifully as a puzzle box. Truly, Dunnett’s books are amazing: if you haven’t read them, you should!
F.I.: That’s what I call a recommendation. Do you sometimes re-read your old favorites?
Oh yes, all the time. I’m such a fast reader that I’d soon run out of reading material if I didn’t re-read books I enjoy. In fact, my rule used to be that I’d only buy a book if I’d already read and loved it. (Now that I’ve got an e-reader and no longer have to worry about shelf space, I buy books at the drop of a hat. Bad news for my bank account, but good news for debut authors like myself – the hardest part of being new is convincing people to give your work a try.)
F.I.: When did you start writing? And was that right away fantasy or something completely different?
Starting in my teen years, I occasionally played around with writing little bits of scenes – but I never made it past a couple pages, because I had this crazy idea that you shouldn’t move on in a story until you’d gotten a scene absolutely perfect. It always took me so long to get any one scene “right” that I figured I just wasn’t meant to be a writer. But then, in the fall of 2007, some friends from work convinced me to try NaNoWriMo with them. (If you haven’t heard of NaNo, it involves writing the first 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November.) I’d gotten pretty frustrated waiting for new books from my favorite authors to come out, and the idea for what would become The Whitefire Crossing was lurking in my head…so I thought, well, maybe it’s time to try getting a story down even if it doesn’t come out perfect the first time. When I set aside perfectionism and gave myself permission to write a crappy first draft and fix it later…holy cow, what an epiphany! Freed from my inner editor, the story poured out. Yes, it needed a lot of fixing – I ended up having to do an entire white-page rewrite of the book before it was ready for publication – but without that first step, I never would’ve started the journey.
So anyway, The Whitefire Crossing was the first novel I ever wrote. (Also the second novel I ever wrote, if you count that big rewrite!) Since fantasy is my favorite genre to read, I never even considered writing anything different. The idea for Whitefire’s story came from thinking about what sort of book I most wanted to read: something with plenty of magic, adventure, betrayals, characters with secrets…and mountain climbing, because I love that too.
F.I.: That part about moving on only after a scene is perfectly finished sounds quite familiar. I for myself had the same problem when I wrote my book. Now afterwards I’ve seen my mistake. If I ever should take up writing again, I know I’m not making that mistake again. Was it hard for you to make that switch in writing style, being such a perfectionist as you obvious are?
Definitely. It’s still something I struggle with when I write a first draft (as I’m doing now, for The Labyrinth of Flame!). I use deadlines and word count goals to force myself to make forward progress in the story and not get stuck in endless revision loops. Even so, the key word here is “force.” I don’t think shutting out the inner editor will ever be easy for me. But once you’ve successfully pushed through to finish one novel, the good news is that you know it can be done. That helps a lot, on days when progress comes hard.
F.I.: You obviously put a lot of your personal experience as a mountain climber in your books. How far do you go in that?
Well, the terrain that Dev and Kiran travel through is based on the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California – specifically, the insanely steep and rugged eastern side of the range, where snowcapped 14,000 feet peaks soar over the sagebrush desert of the Owens Valley. The eastern Sierra are the mountains of my heart – I’ve spent so many glorious days amid their spires, I wanted to share a bit of that joy with others. But I didn’t go so far as to base everything Dev and Kiran do in the mountains on exact experiences I’ve had. For the most part, I simply wrote the mountain scenes drawing on the gestalt of knowledge I’ve obtained through years of climbing in both California and Colorado. That said, there’s one bit in The Whitefire Crossing where Dev and Kiran are waiting out a thunderstorm, and they see lightning hit a spire and cause a massive rockfall…that comes straight from an experience I had while backpacking the Sierra High Route some years ago (right down to the realization that if the rockfall had happened on my side of the canyon, I’d have been crushed to paste). But that’s pretty much the only scene in the book that’s got an exact real-life analogue.
F.I.: Now about your series. How far are you in the concluding part of The Shattered Sigil?
Just this month (November) I started serious work on The Labyrinth of Flame, so as yet I’m only a few chapters into the book. Although I don’t do a formal outline, I’m the sort of writer who likes to know the beginning, the end, and a few waypoints in between before I start writing. So I spent quite a while after finishing The Tainted City thinking about character arcs, the shape of the overarching story, and how I wanted the series to end. Once I had a good idea of that, it was time for the fun part: discovering (via the act of writing the story) just how the characters will get to that endpoint, and what twists and turns their path will take along the way.
F.I.: Is there an approximate release date set for The Labyrinth Of Flame?
Not yet. Night Shade only bought two books in my original deal, so Labyrinth isn’t yet on contract. Readers needn’t fear, though – I’m writing the novel no matter what (hey, I want to know how the story ends!), and I’ll put it out myself if need be.
F.I.: And after The Shattered Sigil? What will be your next project?
Good question. I’m a “one book at a time” sort of writer, so while I have little wisps of ideas for new books lurking deep in my brain, they’ll stay mere wisps until I finish Labyrinth. At that point I’ll ask myself the same question I did before I wrote The Whitefire Crossing: what kind of book do I want to read? And then I’ll write whatever that is.
F.I.: I’m curious what that book will be. Now, I want to end with some questions about how you write. Do you have a schedule every day? Like writing on predefined times or do you write when the possibility or inspiration occurs?
Heh. When you face your first editorial deadline, you learn fast that you don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration: you’ve got to write whether you feel like it or not. The funny part is that afterward, usually nobody can tell which scenes flowed from your fingers on a tide of inspiration, and which scenes were cudgeled one painful word at a time out of a recalcitrant brain. As for how I write: I don’t have a formal schedule, I just write whenever I can. Since I’ve got a day job, a young son, and I’m emphatically not a morning person, that means I most often write late at night after my son (and husband) have gone to bed. I squeeze in more words during my son’s naps and my lunch hours at work. Some people say to me, “Are you crazy? Why would you give up sleep and leisure time when as a parent you’ve got so little of it left?” For me, the answer is simple: I love my characters and world far too much to leave their story unfinished. It’s that passion that keeps my butt in my computer chair night after night, long after I should be in bed.
F.I.: Let’s suppose you get the opportunity to become a full-time writer, would you give up your job in the space industry?
Nope. Well, okay, if my books suddenly started earning J.K. Rowling-style zillions, then I’d ditch my job, move to somewhere like Telluride, Colorado or Bishop, California and spend all my time playing in the mountains…in which case my writing output would drop to near zero (so much for the full-time writing!). But realistically speaking, no. Not only do I like engineering, but publishing is a crazy, crazy industry. Writing is so much less stressful when you don’t depend on it to pay your bills. I’d far rather keep my writing as my joy, and not my job.
F.I.: Thank you, Courtney, for your kind answers. It was fun doing this interview.
If you’re curious after The Shattered Sigil, then I have some great news for you. Tomorrow’s post is an excerpt of The Whitefire Crossing, the first book in The Shattered Sigil trilogy.
Courtney Schafer is the author of adventure fantasy novels The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City, the first two books in the Shattered Sigil trilogy. She’s working on the third and final novel right now, The Labyrinth of Flame, and she’s pretty darn excited about it. You can call the novels adventure fantasy because they hover on the boundary between epic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery, not quite one or the other. (For one thing, the books have plenty of magic, murder, intrigue, and even mountaineering, but no swords!)
When not writing, she figure skates, climbs 14,000 foot peaks, squeezes through Utah slot canyons, skis way too fast through trees, and chases after her equally energetic little boy. To support her adrenaline-fueled hobbies and writing habit, she received a degree in electrical engineering from Caltech and now she works in the space industry and gets to do science-fictional things every day. Courtney lives with her husband and son in the climber’s paradise of Boulder, Colorado, where they take full advantage of all the mountains have to offer.