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Dangerous Dragons: An Interview with Stephen Deas

Stephen Deas lives in Southeast England with his wife and two children. His debut novel, The Adamantine Palace is an epic fantasy where dragons are not the nice, friendly, even cuddly things many modern stories have made them out to be. Deas took time out of his busy schedule writing and preparing for the release of the sequel, King of the Crags to answer a few questions I had about his work and his rather lively rants at his blog, Critical Failures.

John Ottinger: The Adamantine Palace is your debut novel. How does it feel to have your work in print, and what sort of obstacles did you find in the road to getting published?

Stephen Deas: It feels great. It’s been a very long road, and there were several times when I nearly gave up. Honestly, one of the biggest obstacles to getting published was, well, not being good enough. As with most things in life, there’s no substitute for a heck of a lot of practice. After that… It seems a strange thing to say, but in hindsight, the other big obstacle was trying to be too different. A lot of advice to writers is to be original, but that’s dangerous in itself. Publishers are fairly conservative these days. Editors have nowhere near the freedom they once enjoyed. They need to be able to convince their management that what whey want to publish will sell. A piece of advice? Yes, you probably have to bring something new, but you need a good strong dose of the tried-and-tested in your manuscript as well before it will sell.

That’s a generalization, of course. I have no doubt there are exceptions, but I suspect if you look closely, you’ll see some sort of track record in short stories, on-line work, small press publications or something like that. I tackled the whole business head-on, novel after novel straight to mainstream publishers. Possibly not the best approach, but then you write what you’re inspired to write, right?

JO: In your article “Where be Dragons?” you state that “We have emasculated our dragons. We give them traits that are recognizable as human. We try to explain how they work, how they live, what they eat, how they came to be. We steadily bring them within the circle of our understanding. In the end, we make them like us.” Why is this a bad thing, and how are the dragons of The Adamantine Palace different from the sissy dragons of other literature?

SD: Look, the world already has My-Little-Pony. I’m not sure what My-Little-Firebreathing-Pony-With-Wings adds. It was a nice idea once, but now it’s gone mainstream. Like A-Little-Bit-Dangerous-But-Ultimately-Highly-Honorable-And-Very-Safe vampires. You know, sometimes I’m tempted to put all this epic fantasy away and write something where the world is secretly populated by a race of benevolent yet edgy carnivorous shapeshifting horses that can talk and fly and breath fire and and and…

(OK, actually I’m rather addicted to Tru Blood. But apart from that).

Dragons are monsters. We made them up to be exactly that. What purpose does the monster serve in a story? The hero is defined by the monster. The bigger the monster, the bigger the hero. No monster, no hero. And if there’s no one in stories showing us how to be a hero and almost every single real-world potential hero is shown to be as human as the rest of us, I think we lose track of what heroism is. Without that, what do we become? Without a concept of self-sacrifice and acting for the greater good, there’s not much left to write home about. More and more, the monsters become the heroes and people become the monsters, and that troubles me. Turning dragons into cuddle-pets is just one tip of a very big iceberg, but it happens to be one that I can do something about.

So, the dragons of The Adamantine Palace. Well, they’re not cuddly. They’re monsters. Doped and pliant monsters to begin with, but if and when they wake up (and of course they do otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story), all we are to them is food. We simply have nothing to offer them except calories. They’re at least as intelligent as us, they co-operate and even if you manage to somehow kill one, they don’t stay dead.

And before you bring it up, no, in The Adamantine Palace, there aren’t any heroes to fight the monsters (yet). We’ll see how well that works out, shall we…?

JO: Though The Adamantine Palace contains dragons, it is really primarily a high fantasy full of political maneuverings and no clearly defined hero or even anti-hero. Your characters all act from selfish motives. Did you find it difficult to write about such characters and what unique plot complications arose from not having such stock roles for your characters?

SD: See, I knew you were going to bring it up…

First thing to get out of the way, there are some slightly less objectionable characters coming in The King of the Crags. I said slightly. I’ve had several confused readers asking who they’re supposed to identify with or else thinking they were supposed to identify with the dragon and then wishing they hadn’t. There’s no supposed to about it. You know what, I actually rather enjoyed writing about them, but then I know what’s in store for most of them, heh. No, writing them wasn’t difficult at all, because on the whole, they don’t have any difficult decisions to make. It’s harder when you have characters with a strong moral compass who have to make difficult decisions, because you have to stay true to that moral compass and any personal flaws that might compromise it. When you’re dealing with a character who is ruthlessly self-centered, their decisions are different. There’s no moral aspect to them, simply the best route to getting what they want. I had to think much more carefully about the actions of, for example, Kemir, than Prince Jehal, who doesn’t seem to mind what he has to do to get what he wants. The first book of the trilogy is very much about surfaces, what’s going on on the surface of the world and on the surface of the characters’ thoughts, and that’s relatively easy. The second and third books peer a little deeper.

As for complications, with several of the characters I had a bit of a problem with not knowing what they were going to do next. One of them would maneuver to create a situation, but until I started writing the next scenes, I often didn’t know how other characters would respond. I think of my characters as little mask, and as I write a scene, I put on the mask for the right character; that’s simply a way of thinking and behaving, but it’s that character’s way of thinking and behaving. So, for example, when the white dragon Snow first goes missing, I don’t quite know what Queen Shezira (for example) is going to do about it until I put on her mask. That was OK, though, because some things didn’t matter. I never expected Speaker Hyram to do what he did to Prince Jehal either – it was simply the right thing at the time.

JO: The Adamantine Palace is an excellent book and well-worth buying and reading. But like some readers, I’m always wary of beginning a series of epic fantasy novels without knowing if there is an end in sight. Do you have a planned length for the series?

SD: Thank-you – I hope many others soon share your sentiment. I quite understand your caution, too; it’s a strange thing, fantasy. Publishers are extremely keen to have multi-book series, and I’d hazard a guess that offering a trilogy is almost necessary to get your first book published in this genre. Yet at the same time, I’ve also had plenty of people tell me to my face that they simply won’t buy The Adamantine Palace until all three books are out. I also appreciate there is considerable frustration over long series of books as soon as the delay between subsequent books starts to grow, and that there is a lot of this about at the moment…

I think I’ve dropped a hint or two that the series is three books long. And it is and yet it isn’t. See, if I had my way, what I’d really like to do is write a sequence of stories that all stand entirely on their own merits and yet have the whole add up to more than the sum of its parts. That’s turned out to be a bit trickier than I’d hoped, and certainly wouldn’t meet the aspirations of my publishers either, so here’s my pact with you, long-suffering readers: First: after three books, there will be a definite end. There will be closure. Second: these three books will meet their delivery deadlines. The King of the Crags is about to come out in the UK and book three is undergoing its first major rewrite and is comfortably on schedule. Third: Since I don’t intend to destroy the entire world and render it into sub-atomic dust, it’s fairly safe to say that at least a few characters will still left alive and there will be a few little sub-plots and mysteries left hanging. I am already writing a second series set in a distant part of the same world. If I come back to the dragons (which I certainly hope to), I will do so with a distinct story that stands on its own two feet and comes to another clear end, but I will also build on what’s gone before. In my ideal world, I’d give you short sequences of between one and three books that each present a complete story, but will also add up to something more. We’ll see if it works.

JO: What to you is the appeal of writing epic fantasy?

SD: The endless scope of it. The room it give you to spread your creative wings, to strip people of their modern-day complications and reveal the essential kindnesses and cruelties underneath. Heroism and cowardice, selflessness and selfishness. I think seeing what these things look like in a raw sort of way helps us to recognize the much more complicated versions of the same that we see in the real world. At the same time, you can re-invent the world to be anything you like (look at the reaction to world of Avatar) and inspire people to dream in a way that few other genres can. It is an unsubtle genre of the unsubtle. Sure, it can’t have the same subtleness as any other type of fiction and is probably all the better for it. But it demands something big and grand as well. It begs for its heights to be dizzying and its depths to be unfathomable. And it doesn’t mind the odd cliché or two…

JO: When you were at Dragonmeet (a UK roleplaying convention for those who don’t know) you ran a game based in The Adamantine Palace. What ruleset did you use for your game and how did people respond to the world that you have invented?

SD: I ran the game using D&D edition 3.5, chosen simply because it’s a system I expect most gamers to know (in fact, probably better than I do). It went pretty well, surprisingly well, in fact. I feared that giving them a dragon (which I did) might upset the balance of everything horribly, but in fact it didn’t.

JO: At that same convention, you also spoke about roleplaying and the link between them. What to you, is the link? Is it a good idea for a budding writer to spend valuable writing time playing RPG’s?

SD: Running RPGs taught me how to be flexible with a story. I would start with a setting and a collection of background characters, the movers and shakers of the world. I would know what they were trying to achieve and how, roughly, the story would end if no one interfered. Then I let a bunch of player characters into the mix and straight away, anything can happen. In a novel, you always have the choice to railroad your characters into doing what you want them to do – they have no choice, since they don’t even exist unless you write them. In an RPG, it’s not so easy. Players like to be in control of their own destinies. RPGs taught me that stories can flex and bend a great deal to accommodate this without really suffering if you do it right, and also how to do it right. Once you know it can be done and have confidence you can recover a story from almost any unexpected twist, you can take those skills straight into a novel. You can let the characters of your own creation have exactly the same freedom to take paths you hadn’t thought of until they opened up right in front of you. RPGs taught me how to do all that.

I’ve probably been lucky with my players, who all seem to like an even mix of action and character playing. That helps too. I don’t see why a budding writer shouldn’t game as well. It’s a hobby, right? And you need something else to take you away from the keyboard. It’s social, creative, might even teach you something useful… What’s not to like? I still play almost every week, despite all the other commitments I have. I’ve even given up PC games, but not my weekly shot of D&D. That’ll be the last thing to go.

JO: Unlike other authors, you do not seem to have gone the route of publishing short stories that could be leveraged to get your novel published. Do you think not have a “name” beforehand made it more difficult to get your work published?

SD: Yes. I have yet to meet a (recent) author who didn’t do something, be it short stories, pod-cast, blog, small press, free downloads, you name it, someone has probably done it to try and get some attention, and like I said, there don’t seem to be many authors being taken on who haven’t done something to draw attention to themselves first.

I never really took to short stories, or perhaps they never really took to me. My ‘little bit extra’ was going down the self-publishing path as far as printing off some advance reading copies. And thus we move on to…

JO: You say in your bibliography that Bloodline “is the first novel I wrote that I thought was any good. I got a fair way through the self-publishing route with this….[it] got me my agent.” What was this novel about, how far did you get with self-publishing it and how did it get you your agent?

SD: Bloodline. Yes, I’m not sure that it was good enough to make it, but it was close. Bloodline was epic fantasy in a way, but very dark. It was focused around one character, a self-obsessed angry royal prince with a great big chip on his shoulder who was completely oblivious to the destruction he wrought around him. The story ran in two parallel threads that traced very similar paths; the first followed him as a young man, carelessly damaging everyone around him as he alternated between railing against the unfairness of the world and then ineptly trying to repair what he’d broken; then later, as an older man, having the one thing that he did right in his life taken away from him and the redemption he finds in fighting to claim it back. I might come back to it one day. The writing needs some work, but it was (is) a powerful story.

I got as far as getting some proper layout design done and getting a couple of dozen copies printed. I managed to persuade a couple of reasonably well-known fantasy authors to read it and they both said quite positive things. One in particular (KJ Parker) was extremely helpful about what worked and what didn’t, and recommended me to my agent. Believe me, that sort of recommendation guarantees nothing, but it certainly helps get in the door.

By coincidence, the cover art for Bloodline would have come from the excellent Dominic Harman, who now happens to do the dragons on the cover of the UK edition of The Adamantine Palace. Small world.

JO: You have a day job, a wife, and two children. How do you manage to find time to write?

SD: With increasing difficulty. We used to have our routines, when the children were younger. First thing in the morning and in the early evening before bedtime, they’d watch TV and I’d write. Nowadays that’s all gone out the window. I write when and where I can. I can type pretty fast, which helps, but I’ve learned to take my laptop absolutely everywhere. Twenty minutes at lunchtime at work, I write. On the subway squashed between two people, I write (3000 words crossing London to and from Dragonmeet, for example). I’m on a train, I write. Any time that might have been spent staring out of the window, I write. Once a week I try to give myself a break and go to a local coffee-shop for a couple of hours. I try very, very hard not to let writing come between me and the rest of my family, but now and then I simply take the evening off and write. I don’t know where the time comes from, and nor does my wife. I have no other hobbies and pastimes any more (except my weekly does of D&D). Dammit, I have Assassin’s Creed II and Dragon Age:Origins sitting waiting for me, unplayed. And they’ll probably stay that way.

The muse is a harsh mistress, but she cannot be denied.

JO: Thank you so much for giving me your valuable time.

SD: It’s been a real pleasure.