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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author Ken Scholes

Ken Scholes is on top of the world. A former Baptist preacher and song leader, a government worker by day, and a new father of twins, his stories have appeared in Talebones, Realms of Fantasy, and TOR.com amongst others. Three of five novels in his epic fantasy-science fiction mixed seriesThe Psalms of Isaak have released from Tor Books. The fourth book, Requiem, is due in 2012. Find Ken online at www.kenscholes.com and also on Facebook and Twitter as @KenScholes.


SFFWRTCHT: Let’s start with the basics: How do you define epic fantasy? What are its key elements in your mind? And where does The Psalms of Isaak fit.

 

Ken Scholes: I don’t really have a definition that I particularly work with. I know the basics. Secondary world, young hero, etc. I’d classify it probably as postapocalyptic SF, but even that is tricky. I didn’t write it with a genre in mind…just story.  I’m definitely playing with the fantasy tropes (orphan boy, dashing prince, deadly courtesan, hidden king).

SFFWRTCHT: Where did your interest in SF and fantasy come from?

KS: I was first brought into science fiction and fantasy through television. Then books and comic books. Bradbury was a huge early influence. I watched shows like Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, Speed Racer, etc.

SFFWRTCDHT: Who were some of your biggest inspirations/influences besides Bradbury?

KS: Robert E Howard, Phillip K Dick, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Robert Heinlein, Tolkien, Brooks.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you start writing seriously and how long until your first sale?

KS: I started writing seriously in 1997, first story came out in Talebones in 2000 after about 75 rejections. The average is supposedly 100.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study creative writing at all in school? How’d you learn your craft?

KS: I didn’t study in college beyond basic writing classes. But I read a lot. And I read a lot of writing books. I also went to some young author conference/workshop things in HS (80s) and then cons in the 90s. I’m not big on crit groups. I use beta readers. A lot of writers trying to break in spend far too much time and money on workshops and not enough time just writing.

SFFWRTCHT: So you learned through observation and trial and error mostly it seems, correct?

KS: Yes, and workshops are great to start with but at some point, you gotta just write write write write write.

SFFWRTCHT: Where did the Named Lands come from?

KS: That world and the series all sprang to life out of a short story, “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread And Dancing With the Sunrise.” I wrote it in 2005 for Lennox Ave’s Mechanical Oddities issue, but they closed for subs before I finished so I sent it over to Realms Of Fantasy. They bought it and the art they bought for it did the rest.  The art inspired me and I decided it must be four short stories instead of one, wrote the second and then it was rejected but editor Shawna McCarthy put a note on the manuscript saying “Go write a novel with these characters and this world.” And then Jay Lake and my wife Jen dared me. So I took the dare – eight weeks to write first draft, then Jay would introduce me around to editors and agents at the Austin World Fantasy Convention.  I finished in six-and-a-half weeks.  I won the dare, and then it all just happened kinda fast. From start of the novel to a five book deal was thirteen months.  It doesn’t go this way very often.

SFFWRTCHT: And when did Jennifer Jackson, your agent, come on board?

KS: I met Jenn at WFC Austin, sent her the book when I finished the revisions in December, and she took me on in February.

SFFWRTCHT: Amazing! Do you start with characters sketches or outlines or just let it unfold as it comes?

KS: I start with characters and their problem. I rarely outline or take any notes. I tend to be organic. Though I’m trying to outline now. And did one for Canticle. I had not plotted it out much…I knew the key moments around the four short stories: first was Rudolfo finding metal man, second was the trial of Sethbert, third was an explosion in the new library. The fourth key moment is secret.

SFFWRTCHT: The setting is postapocalyptic. How much of the back story have you thought through?

KS: A lot of the backstory has written itself as I write the series. I’ve expanded some in “A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon” and I’m discovering that bits of the backstory are in threads going deep back into older stories.

SFFWRTCHT: And where’d you come up with your title sequence?

KS: The titles come from a line in the first book, Lamentation: “And he saw how a lamentation could become a hymn and understood his part in it.”  Each title is lifted from sacred music terms – as is the series title – which is an interesting play on the theme.

SFFWRTCHT: Is there a message to the story?

KS: I don’t have a message so to speak as much as an exploration of how humans behave.

SFFWRTCHT: The books have some religious undertones but they’re more secular humanist in the order, right?

KS: The Andofrancines are secular humanists but anyone reading past Canticle has started meeting my non secular humanists. I definitely pull from my varied background as a former Christianist and current humanist.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing process like? Specific time set aside to write? Grab it when you can? And do you use music? Specific software?

KS: I’m reinventing that right now as I work my way out of this block. I prefer early morning — 3:30ish, ideally 2k words per day. But I’ve definitely done the seat of my pants find time where I can approach.  I use headphones and a long, long playlist. With toddlers I pretty much have to in order to block out the noise if they’re near. I write in MS Word.

SFFWRTCHT: How much of a role do beta readers play now that you have a publisher?

KS: I use beta readers (John A. Pitts, Jerry, Jen, sometimes Jay Lake) but my editor (Beth Meacham) and my agent (Jenn) also read and give feedback. Then we have the copyedits, etc.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve been blocked because of major events one after the other pretty much since the twins were born. In fact, you went to treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which you said has turned things around a lot.

KS: Yes, book deal, mom’s death, nephew’s death, dad’s death, twins all in two years’ time. It hit my health hard. The PTSD treatment settled the symptoms down to nothing, but all that stuff still had to be processed. We pushed hard through Antiphon before the wheels fell off. But I’m 65k into Requiem.  Most of these come in around 145k. It’ll go fast once I’m fully operational…2k per day…we’re talking a few months.

SFFWRTCHT: How are readers and reviewers responding?

KS: Well, it’s mostly overwhelmingly positive. Won an ALA award and France’s Prix Imaginales for Lamentation. I get notes from people all over the world telling me that they love the series. And I’m seeing a lot of crossovers of folks who don’t normally read science fiction and fantasy who love the series.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you how the Psalms of Isak will end?

KS: I have all of the bones of the story in my head and a lot of the meat and muscle is there too. Some will evolve as I write.

SFFWRTCHT: What projects are you working on for the future that we can look forward to?

KS: I think I’m going to take a break after this one and write some stand alone pieces that might start new series. I also have some series in mind in the Psalms of Isaak universe as well as some more traditional fantasy…and mainstream, too. I have a lot of ideas.


Interviewer Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.