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Interview: Peter Orullian on The Unremembered, Writing, and Character

As a writer, Peter Orullian tends to write the stories that occur to him and prove compelling, which means he writes in any number of genres. His published fiction is mostly fantasy and science fiction, but he’s written a couple of thrillers he hopes to find homes for soon.

As a musician, Peter’s tastes likewise run the gamut. There are few musical genres he doesn’t enjoy. So, while many might find easy stereotypes when they see Peter, those stereotypes are too narrow to accommodate the variety of his musical tastes. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t love rock music—he absolutely does!

Beyond these consuming interests, he currently works at Microsoft in the Interactive Entertainment Business (Xbox), loves the outdoors (with a fondness for the Rocky Mountains that he’ll never lose) and taking his Jeep deep into the back-country, but more than anything enjoys spending time with his family.


John Ottinger: Tell us a little about your debut novel, The Unremembered.

Peter Orullian: Sure. It’s pretty tried-and-true epic fantasy. There’s war, magic, politics, and the like. It trades on a blend of what is familiar and what is strange. Which is to say that I’ve worked to create some new things in the book, and where it made sense I’ve adopted conventions of the genre. But caution there, as my diabolical plan is to evolve those conventions past your assumptions. In other words, don’t get comfortable.

JO: What makes your series different from all the other quest fantasy series out there?

PO: Actually, I don’t know that I would call it a quest fantasy. In book one, there is movement across part of my world, and some of my characters are, indeed, trying to achieve something specific. But they’re not trying to retrieve anything; and more importantly, this is just book one. The series really doesn’t trade on the quest notion.

But as to what is unique about my series, I could talk about the creation myth, or the magic systems and how one becomes invested with those abilities, or music and the differentiated way I treat it both as an art and magic, or the idea of a warder taking care of some few of the world’s orphans, or a race that dies exceedingly young, or other invented races unfairly punished, etc, etc, or (and perhaps more importantly) the interplay of all these things . . . But at the risk of sounding a bit maudlin, after all this, it really comes down to characters, doesn’t it? Because we could get reductive on plots and fantasy invention and pretty fast begin to see a lot of sameness across the field. At the end of it, though, when I think about books I love, as much as I may dig the trappings, I remember the characters. I’ve tried to make my characters real, and create poignancy in the relationships they share. If I’ve done my job, readers will experience all of that stuff above, and then talk about my characters with real emotion.

JO: So what makes for a good character?

PO: Answering the question why. Why do they do the things they do. You can get at this by listening to their thoughts and feelings, and sharing those with the reader. And you can, of course, demonstrate it through their actions. But in the absence of motivation, characters are just doing things with no rhyme or reason.

It’s not that everything is linked to childhood or trauma. But here’s the thing: We’re all human, and as such we share a set of experiences and emotions. When you reveal these to a reader about a character, the reader can begin to sympathize, maybe empathize. It makes the connection they’ll have with your character more powerful. And in the same way, a writer can use the approach to make the relationships between characters stronger, too—by the way, the relationship could be mutual antagonism.

Sometimes authors inject more of themselves into one character than another. Is Braethen the author’s son that character for you, or is it another, or none?

Actually, I think this more of a myth than anything else. Sure, any character is necessarily a result of an author’s experience. But for me—and for the writers I know—when a character is created, it’s invention. We don’t put ourselves in our books. Well, Clive Cussler has done it, but he does it literally, not as some veiled attempt to invest a character with his own persona.

So, they’re all me. And none of them are me.

I’ve been thinking lately that this whole notion maybe arises as a reaction to the “new criticism.” You know, where the text is evaluated in the absence of social or authorial context. I’d be interested in a discussion on a panel sometime about this. I’m rather curious as to why readers so frequently desire to see the author in the characters. I know Rothfuss has had this question ad nauseum.

JO: In Your Big Idea post at Scalzi’s Whatever you said “I told the story of people (and even gods) whose help was needed and who could not or would not be able to offer that help….” Does this mean that the story of The Unremembered is tragic – where heroes die and nobody wins? Or is there a triumph of good over evil?

PO: I think you’re using the classic drama definition of “tragic.” Apologies if I misread you. But no, I’m not doing Oedipus or some modern day corollary. Which isn’t to say that heroes won’t die. Or that winners and losers in matters of conflict won’t be surprising.

And I’m not painting with black and white, either. Initially, there’s a division of peoples in my world. But I don’t use the E (evil) word, as such; any more than I use the G (good) word. Don’t get me wrong, I want you to cheer for someone. But this ain’t melodrama; no Snidely Whiplash or Dudley Do-Right here. Characters will have proclivities, for sure, but these will be born out of real circumstances. I’ve offered plenty of hints to this in The Unremembered. This is what lies behind the quote you’ve excised from my Scalzi post.

JO: For your first novel, why did you decide on an open ended series? Why not start with a couple of stand-alones?

PO: Well, what I decided on was a story. And the story I conceived is simply going to require multiple volumes. I like the form, too. I like tales that span multiple viewpoints, multiple years, multiple nations, etc. I like to become invested in something large, as when I read great epics by other writers.

I’m also reminded of something Stephen King said, when asked why he keeps writing “that horror stuff.” He quipped, “You assume I have a choice.” Now, of course, a writer can do what he or she likes. But when a story you want to write occurs to you, you do your best to write it. More than that, you kind of have to. Most writers I know are like this. Plus, you know, there’s a lot of truth to the old saw that writers write the tales they want to read. If I can borrow King again, he’s said often that he writes to please himself, with the idea that (since he’s a reader himself), there’s at least a middling chance someone else will like it, too. I kinda dig that.

JO: How many books did you write before you became published?

PO: I think the count is four fiction novels. The Unremembered was the second of these.

JO: How has your preparation/research/outlining process changed between when you first began writing and where it is now? Can you describe the process you currently use?

PO: Honestly, it changes depending on the project. Which is to say, sometimes I write organically—Martin’s “gardener,” if you will. Other times—and with book two of The Vault of Heaven which I’m just wrapping up now—I create a rough outline and use that as a guidepost as I write. What I’ve found is that this loose framework actually gives me a kind of greater license to “color outside the lines,” and I tend to wander down fewer dead ends.

In fantasy, I do a lot of world building up front, but at least as much is discovered during the writing itself. I’ve grown fond of the approach. But the next fantasy series I write, I’ll probably mix it up, just for fun.

JO: You could be accused of repeating the woman-must-be-raped to have emotional scarring trope with Wendra. What is your response, and why did you decide to include a female character that was raped when this seems to be a common theme of epic fantasy – almost to the point that it is trite? (Not that it isn’t a harsh reality and something that needs to be stopped. Right. Now.)

PO: Accused, you say? As in a legal proceeding? Sorry, my editor has me completely sensitized to word choice.

The truth us, Wendra isn’t scarred because of the rape. She’s actually gotten past it. Not that rape isn’t awful. But in a pre-industrial (relatively lawless) society, rape is going to be, well, at least as prevalent as it is now, wouldn’t you agree? The point is, it shouldn’t be surprising.

But again, that’s not what scars Wendra. I can’t go into it without doing some spoilers. But there are a couple of things that occur in the book that shape her emotional state more than the rape, more by a far sight. And these are what matter in the novel; they are part of the engine that drive the narrative. And these things are made more resonant by the rape, despite the fact that she’s gotten beyond it.

So, while yes, some fantasies have rape to cause emotional scarring, that’s not the case with Wendra.

JO: The Unremembered has a fairly large cast of characters. I have a two part question on this. First, how do you keep them straight when writing, and second, how do you develop a character in the first place?

PO: Mind like a steel trap. Capiche? That, and I’ve found a way to adapt Microsoft productivity software to chart out my chapter construction. However, I had no such system with book one. The truth is, I had a very strong sense of the various plotlines and how I wanted them to intertwine as I wrote The Unremembered.

I hit on some of this above. You think about motivation. I know how that sounds, given all the method acting spoofs we’ve all seen. But it’s true, nonetheless. You have to ask yourself: What matters most to my character?

All that is the clinical, workshoppy stuff. I have to admit that a great deal of my process is intuitive. I’m exceedingly visual, and I also feel pretty intensely the things my characters go through. It sounds a bit pansy, but there are times when I finish writing that I’m emotionally exhausted. All of which is to say that there’s a good chunk of how I develop a character that is instinctive.

JO: How do you visualize your scenes? Some authors simply see it in their head, some have told me they will get up and act it out, others use action figures or ask an expert martial artist for things like fight scenes. What is it that you do?

PO: I supposed I mostly see it in my head. When it comes to battle scenes, I’m able to call up on several years of martial arts training, if I need to. But I’d say that what that does for me, mostly, is give me a sense of the physics of battle, how you’d succeed or fail with a weapon based on proximity. What the best attack choices are, etc.

JO: What are your thoughts on the current self-pub/e-book craze? Is this something you would ever consider doing yourself? Why or why not?

PO: I think most writers are going to do more than just consider it. At the very least, I suspect in the not-too-distant future there’ll be a kind of hybrid of traditional and self-publication for most writers. Truth is, that’s happening now with increasing frequency every day.

The thing that will have to crop up is some kind of filter, right? Because while I know a great many pro writers who will do the right diligence to hire an editor, etc, before just uploading their file, there are hosts of writers who won’t do that same diligence. Readers will need some way to know the difference. Current online review systems are woefully inadequate to the task, in my view, particularly given the sheer volume we’re talking about. Sounds like a business opportunity, doesn’t it?

JO: What sort of stories do you like to read?

PO: Sap alert! I like tales where courage matters, where honor is rewarded. It’s not that I don’t like “grey.” But I live in Seattle, ya know. I get grey for lunch. By coincidence, I watched Men of Honor today with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert DeNiro. I’ve talked about this film before. That ending scene, where Cuba does nothing more than walk twelve steps, stirs my blood, makes me cry in the most manly way you can imagine.

I like tough choices. The wrong thing for the right reason, and the inverse of that. I like stories where friends will put it all at risk for one another, where the memory of a good man matters as much as about anything else. That give you a sense?

JO: What projects are you currently working on?

PO: I’m about two to three weeks from finishing the first draft of book two of The Vault of Heaven. I’ll spend a fair bit of time polishing, but with luck, the book will be about 18 months behind The Unremembered; of course, that’ll be up to my publisher.

I’ve also begun recording a concept album to go along with The Unremembered. It tells the story of one of the Maesteri—one who stewards the power of song—and his early life; as well as this thing called “The Song of Suffering”, which is a key component of The Vault of Heaven. It’s additive to The Unremembered, meaning you don’t need it to enjoy the book; but if you do at least read the lyrics, there’s another level of appreciation for those elements of the broader story.

I’ve also begun charting out a horror novel (I’m a huge King and Simmons fan); and I’ve got a couple of thrillers I may brush up. But these other efforts are only if time allows; I’m heads down on The Vault of Heaven until the series is through.

JO: Where can we find you online?

PO: You can find me at www.orullian.com. From there, you can get to my other online stuff without much difficulty.

JO: Thanks to Peter for taking the time to answer these queries. Special thanks also goes to Steve, Joshua, and Robert for their suggested questions.