Stephen Deas Interview

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stephen Deas interview
Here is an interview I did with Stephen Deas, author of The Adamantine Palace released earlier this year (look for my review of The Adamantine Palace and Stephen website here).

From what I gathered from his answers, the follow-up to his dragon centered series, King of the Crags, seems even more interesting. He is also working on a new series about which he is giving us some details.

I asked him about some of his kick-ass moments and I was pleased to see that he chose one of the moments I mentioned in my first kick-ass post.

Now let's put the spotlight on the author, here's the interview :

First, can you briefly introduce yourself and describe your book?

Hi everybody. My name's Stephen Deas and I'm the author of The Adamantine Palace. I live in southeast England and most mornings I get up and go to work like everybody else. I'm six foot four, I have size ten feet.... What? I can tell you more... no? Oh, right. Writing then. What can I tell you about The Adamantine Palace?

It's mostly green. A sort of dark Jaguar racing green. With a dragon on it. Except in France where it's mostly yellow with an even bigger dragon on it. It's the first part of a trilogy of books set in a world filled with dragons that used to be wild and intelligent creatures but have been tamed and made stupid by alchemy. The first book pays very little attention to how all this came about (that comes later) and splits its time between two facets of the world: the intrigues and politics of the dragon-kings and queens as they vie to become the ruler of The Adamantine Palace; and the story of a single dragon and who (with her handler) becomes lost during a skirmish and begins to wake up out of her alchemical stupor. And she is NOT happy.

If you want a five word summary of the way the story is written, well then I agree with you that it's probably what's written on the front of the book, “A fast, sharp ruthless read.” It sets off at speed and doesn't stop. There's fights, murders, poisonings, seductions, betrayals, everything short of open warfare all going on at once and yet I'd say, in the end, it's the dragons that steal the show. When they wake up, they kick ass. That's book one. It's very action-centred start to the trilogy.

Stephen Deas interview
From your point of view, is it a story mainly about the dragons themselves and their impact or about the people living in this dragon inhabited world governed by a ruling class fighting a deadly game of political intrigue?

First and foremost a story needs to be about people. It has to be centred around characters with whom a reader can identify, empathise, or at least understand. You can make dragons be like people to achieve that and many writers have followed that path. I've tried not to do that, although I know from comments I've received that a lot of people sympathise with Snow. I wonder how true that will be after book two.

Having said that, I think the story is very much about the impact that dragons have on the people around them, although perhaps not in the most obvious ways. Yes, they can burn cities and eat villages and still be hungry, but I'm thinking more about what it's like to live in a world where you have these monsters at your beck and call – and to always know they're only a few un-drugged weeks away from razing your entire world to the ground. Hell, they're so big and powerful that people regularly die by accident just because either they or a dragon got careless. An idle flick of the tail? Dead. Too close when a dragon flaps its wings? Dead. Dragon sneeze? Dead (although I'm not sure that dragons actually sneeze). To me, a lot of the trilogy is about the people who are close to the dragons and how they are affected by it rather than the dragons themselves. There are the dragon-riders, the Jehals and Zafirs, the Shezira's and Hyram's for whom dragons are tools and weapons. These are two forceful and impulsive characters who act decisively and tend not to reflect on what they are doing very much. I see that sort of personality as an almost necessary result of having these monsters at your beck and call. If you start to think about it all too much, wouldn't you simply be over-awed? Wouldn't you curl up in a corner and whimper? And what sort of king does that? Then you have the alchemists, whose duty above all else is to keep the dragons under control. They're the ones who really understand how easily everything could go wrong and how terrible that could be. So they tend to an opposite trait, always thinking and planning and trying to maintain the status quo. There are the Adamantine Men, who are trained (indoctrinated) from birth to die in their thousands fighting dragons if the need arises. There are the Outsiders like Sollos and Kemir, who see their homes destroyed by men on dragon-back. So yes, for all the intrigues and so forth, the heart of the trilogy is centred around what it means to live with these almost impossibly dangerous creatures permanently around.

Joe Abercrombie’s comment printed on the book is "A fast, sharp, ruthless read". I must agree with him about the fast pace of the book. Do you think this pace (and the short chapters) was better suited for the story or is it you usual writing “style”?

The nature of the dragons dictated the pace. They are a force of nature (or something... more of that in later books), remorseless, relentless and unstoppable and I wanted that to be reflected even in the prose itself. My usual style is still fairly fast – I like a story to get on with itself and not muck about – and in The Adamantine Palace, this was deliberately exaggerated. I realise this doesn't suit all tastes; the pace certainly comes at a price – what you get to see is the surface of the world these characters live in and you get to see the surface of the characters themselves, but you don't get to see much beneath either. Whatever hidden depths they may have, they're for later. Things slow down (a bit) in book two to give a little more time and depth to some of the characters and the history of the world. There was a lot I had to leave out of The Adamantine Palace that I simply can't put aside in the remainder of the story.

You already explained in a previous interview ( Deas) why you chose to write in a fantasy setting and why you chose dragons as a main theme. Dragons have been used a lot in fantasy. What would you say to a reader who is hesitant to pick up the book since it’s about dragons?

Depends why they're hesitant. These are old-school pre-Pern monsters. If you're hesitant because you don't like the way dragons have become flying ponies or have developed characters that are hard to distinguish from the humans around them, well then you might want to give my dragons a try. If you simply don't like dragons, try thinking of them as a metaphor for nuclear weapons or religious extremism or whatever else keeps you up at night worrying that the world is teetering on the brink of destruction and then read the answer a couple of questions above. If you still don't like dragons then, well, maybe you're right to hesitate. It's got some sex in it... does that help?

Which character(s) from The Adamantine Palace do you mostly like to write about?

My favourite character across the whole trilogy is the Night Watchman, but he doesn't even appear in book one. As far as the first book goes, I had most fun with the two mercenaries Sollos and Kemir when they were together. Their bickering banter was some easy fun. I've enjoyed writing Jehal too. I'd loathe him if we met in person, but I happen to know there's more to him than the smug, superficial scheming bastard he appears to be (alright, maybe not much, but he does have some demons). I also get to decide what happens to him...

You don’t seem to be afraid to kill some important PoV. Without naming them, do you think you’ll miss some of them?

Yes. One in particular. Not only do I miss writing their scenes, they were handy to the plot, too. In fact, if they hadn't gotten themselves killed, the whole story might have been different...

Can you give us more detail about the upcoming books of the trilogy (The King of the Crags and the final book)?

A little. OK, the basics. The second book is called The King of the Crags and, last I heard, will be published in the UK in April 2010. I'll be getting on with the editorial re-writes right after I've finished answering these questions. The second book picks up the action where the first one left off and weaves in a bit more of the world's history as best it can without sacrificing the pace. As you can imagine, if you've read the first book, there are a plenty of people who aren't going to be happy with the way things have turned out and they're planning on doing something about it. The Taiytakei are still up to something. There are some new characters, even a couple with some sort of moral compass that makes them almost the 'good guys', although I'm sure they'll get eaten at some point. There's a lot more about alchemists, of how their order came to be and how it works. There will be more dragons. I can promise at least one mass battle. You'll get to see another side of some of the events in The Adamantine Palace from a viewpoint that's a little more thoughtful than most of the characters in book one.

I'm not going to say much about book three except that it will have dragons in it. Lots of dragons. And someone will manage to kill one without poisoning it in its sleep at least once. It's already written; although it needs quite a bit of rework, the ending, I think, will stay the same.

Any plan on putting a detailed map on the following books?

Ah, maps. I like maps, but the short answer is no, there will be no map in any of the dragon books. What I'm going to do is put a map up online. This has a couple of advantages – firstly you can view it at whatever size you like. Secondly I mean to make it a fully hyperlinked gazetteer, so you can click on a place on the map and find out more about its history and features. At the rate things are going, the gazetteer project will be the size of a small novel. Want to know about the Yamuna[1] river that gets mentioned once in book three? Want to know about the people who live there and the giant boat-swallowing worms that never get mentioned at all? All in the gazetteer. So for people who really like all that sort of world-building detail, you can, if you want to, just look up any place mentioned in the story and find out more. For those who only want the bare minimum of the world to keep the story going, you can ignore it. Best of both worlds? Possibly. An experiment? Definitely.

My hand-drawn draft is already available at and the rest will be all sorted out by the end of this year. Feedback will be very welcome once it starts going up in the autumn.

Did you have the whole vision of the dragon trilogy before you started writing or did the story evolved as you wrote it? Same thing for Thief-Taker’s Apprentice?

A bit of both. While I give my characters a lot of latitude in how they find their way through the story I've designed for them, I wouldn't put finger to keyboard without knowing how that story was going to end and at least roughly how to get there. I don't think I'd be allowed to either. I'm expected to produce a synopsis, even if only a half a page, for each book I've been asked to write and I don't think I'd have been offered a publishing contract without being able to show I have a complete vision with a coherent outline and a definite end. I think you'll find this is fairly normal. That said, there's a lot of empty story-space to be filled between a synopsis and a novel. Characters often evolve and take on a life of their own, and sometimes the story has to bend to accommodate that.

I rate the books I review by Characterization/World building/Magic system/Story/Writing and general feeling. Are any of these aspects more important in your case when you write?

Characterisation, definitely, although all these terms are open to interpretation. Stories are about people and if the people aren't credible then the story won't be credible. Doesn't matter whether it's a fantasy, a thriller or a romance, you have to get the basics of character right. Everyone has to have their own internal consistency. After that, you have to have a story. No matter how good the writing and the world-building, somewhere in there I think you have to have a working story. After that, well, what does world-building mean? Does that mean a very detailed fictional world, even if its presentation is dry, detached and dull? Does it mean a real sense of immersion into the fantasy world, even if the details, when you look at them, are few and far between? Somewhere in between? What does 'writing' mean? Is that how easy it is to read? Is it about pace? About descriptions? I think these are terms that will have different meanings to different people. To me, what matters is that a story pulls you in and carries you with it to the end. There are lots of ways of doing that, and that's one of the pleasures of reading, to find yourself being drawn into different stories in entirely different ways.

You wrote on you website that you are working on a new series, the first book being named Thief-Taker’s Apprentice. What will this new series be about?

This is the story of an orphan street-boy, Berren, who makes the big mistake of trying to cut a thief-taker's purse. Instead of handing him over to the guard for a quick whipping, the thief-taker gives Berren the choice to work for him instead. It's an attractive proposition for a boy with nothing to lose, and it offers him an easy escape from his past to something that seems infinitely better. Trouble is, while it gets Berren away from his own past, it puts him right in the path of the thief-taker's history, once it starts to catch up with him. A past that includes a company of mercenaries led by a de-throned prince, a collection of extremely dubious magicians and a rather nasty knife. It's quite different in its approach as compared to The Adamantine Palace, in that the action largely takes place in one city and the point of view remains almost entirely with Berren. It's a smaller story in most senses of the word and that gives it a bit more time to dwell on its characters and location. Before you ask, there's no overt connection between this story and The Adamantine Palace; the astute reader, however, may recognise one or two common points of reference.

Will you ever write something outside of fantasy?

I have already and will/would again, although maybe that depends on where you draw the line that defines 'fantasy.' I've dabbled with science fiction (are The Cloud Atlas and The Time Traveller's Wife science fiction? If they're not then I've dabbled with something else). I've dabbled with horror. I have a story waiting to be written that's about a man trying to cope with the unexpected and seemingly random death of his daughter (not a situation I've ever been in – don't ask me where this comes from). I could sit down and write any one of three or four stories right now and only half of them would be fantasy. For the foreseeable future, though, what I write is dictated by what I'm contracted to write, which is fantasy, and whatever time I have left over afterwards, which is absolutely none at all at the moment. In my perfect world, I would probably be writing at least three different and largely unrelated stories all at once. At the moment that would mean pretending I don't have a family, but if ever I have more time then yes, the stories are there and so is the will to write them.

What book(s) would you recommend to your readers?

When it comes to fantasy, I'm a Conan fan. Read the Conan stories. Read the Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon. Read Joe Abercrombie. All character-centred, action-driven stories. Read early KJ Parker, too. Outside fantasy, I'd recommend Hyperion by Dan Simmons, The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter Hamilton. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson is as much a history book as a novel and utterly fascinating and most of his other works are well worth a look. Jane Austen isn't one of the most widely read writers in the world for no reason. Joseph Conrad is hard work but has been worth it so far. I'm trying to think of hidden gems here now and the sad truth is that I'm lucky if I get to read more than half a dozen books a year at the moment. Also I seem to have moved to recommending books that I like rather than ones that have anything much in common with what I actually write. I've noticed that any book called The Of The Wind seems to be a good bet. And do I really need to mention A Game of Thrones?

I put a couple of “kick ass moments” (a memorable scene, a funny dialogue, a great sentence) on my blog. Do you have a “kick ass moment” you remember from what you’ve read before that you could share with us?

There are a lot of kick-ass moments in Snowcrash. The ending of the second book of the Deed of Paksenarrion (I shalln't say what, but I went off sick the next day so I could go and buy and read the last book, which is something that hasn't happened all that often). When Tyrion Lannister finally has enough of his dad. “It turned out that the stories were wrong and Tywin Lannister didn't shit gold after all.” Or something like that.

There seems to be an increasing number of fantasy writers who are adding more sex/gore/violence/ swearing to their books. We also see less of the farming boy with the great destiny and the “righteous good” vs. “vicious evil”. I think The Adamantine Palace belongs to this new tendency in fantasy. What do you think of this new approach to fantasy?

Much the same as I think of my 'new' approach to dragons – that it isn't new at all. We live in more explicit times, with regard to sex and violence and swearing and this 'new' fantasy reflects that. In the context of their times, though, I think the fantasy of the twenties and thirties wasn't all that different; Joe Abercrombie's works, which I'm sure fall into this 'new' category, remind me somewhat of very old and traditional viking romances – which is great, but not 'new.' What has happened, I think, is that the 'farm-boy-with-a-great-destiny' and the whole 'righteous good vs. vicious evil' black and white morality has gone away (I'm not so sure how prevalent it ever was, but there are some very large and successful examples of that sort of fantasy. Star Wars, for example). I suspect that reflects the more morally ambiguous times we live in. In that respect, maybe fantasy has finally caught up with the fact that the Berlin Wall isn't there anymore and we've moved back into a period of history where there isn't a great 'Evil Empire' that we're all supposed to be afraid of overthrow. I could add that role-playing games probably have something to do with it too.

[1] Not to be confused with the real Yamuna river that runs past the Taj Mahal and is, to my knowledge, free of boat-eating giant worms.


Saffron Bryant said...

I'm a bit late reading this post bit it makes me want to pick up a copy of Adamantine Palace! Have the other two been published now?

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