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Interview with Winds of Khalakovo author Bradley Beaulieu

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Interview with Winds of Khalakovo author Bradley Beaulieu

Last week I reviewed Bradley Beaulieu's debut novel The Winds of Khalakovo.  I said a lot of nice things, and some not so nice things, but most importantly, I said it's a welcome, and needed, addition to the genre. Given my somewhat analytic take on the novel, I really wanted to ask the author some questions. He kindly agreed and provided me better answers than I could have ever hoped.

Here's the blurb for Winds of Khalakovo:

Among inhospitable and unforgiving seas stands Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands, its prominent eyrie stretching a thousand feet into the sky. Serviced by windships bearing goods and dignitaries, Khalakovo's eyrie stands at the crossroads of world trade. But all is not well in Khalakovo. Conflict has erupted between the ruling Landed, the indigenous Aramahn, and the fanatical Maharraht, and a wasting disease has grown rampant over the past decade. Now, Khalakovo is to play host to the Nine Dukes, a meeting which will weigh heavily upon Khalakovo's future.
When an elemental spirit attacks an incoming windship, murdering the Grand Duke and his retinue, Prince Nikandr, heir to the scepter of Khalakovo, is tasked with finding the child prodigy believed to be behind the summoning. However, Nikandr discovers that the boy is an autistic savant who may hold the key to lifting the blight that has been sweeping the islands. Can the Dukes, thirsty for revenge, be held at bay? Can Khalakovo be saved? The elusive answer drifts upon the Winds of Khalakovo...

Justin: Winds uses a lot of elements that might be Russian, or Tartar, or Crimean, or what have you.  In my review I point out some themes that were prevalent in the golden age of Russian lit (Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, etc.).  Intentional?

Beaulieu: This is somewhat tough to answer. I'll start by saying that I'm not well read in Russian literature. And frankly this might be somewhat of a plus for me. Why? Because I shudder at the notion of being derivative. In other words: if I had read them, I wonder if I would have shied away from those very themes. One of my greatest interests in reading is to find something that still produces that sensawunda feeling that I had as a teen when reading fantasy and sci-fi for the first time. And that's also one thing I'm hoping to bring to the table in my own writing.

When I was reading your review, however, I was pleased that Winds had in fact strummed those notes for you—and so perhaps others. I didn't have that grounding in Russian literature to rely on, but I think such things filter down through our culture. They may be altered from the original experience, but I think that we absorb a lot through popular culture without necessarily having immersed yourself in the primary culture.

Personal favorite of mine
(As a small aside, while I say I don't want to be derivative, I realize it's an impossible ideal. We all have influences, people we're trying to emulate, and the ones that have had the most effect on my own writing have been C.S. Friedman, Guy Gavriel Kay, Glen Cook, and George R.R. Martin.)

Justin: So you haven't read much Russian lit.  Did I see what I wanted to see in the text?  Or were you laying these themes down without consciously acknowledging them as part of Russian tradition?

Beaulieu: As I alluded to above, I think there are a lot of things that come down through our popular culture that I picked up along the way, so while I didn't consciously draw from any of those sources, they found their way inside me just the same. I read rather slowly, and I'm certainly no historian, so I'm at a disadvantage when it comes to drawing directly from primary sources for inspiration.

This is why I will probably never write an alternate history novel—be it fantastic or otherwise—because that's simply not my strength. Nor, frankly, is that were my interests are in reading or writing. I'm drawn to completely new, fabricated worlds.

Now, I say that and I recognize the irony. I'm not creating a completely new world. I'm creating a world that draws heavily from Earth-based cultures. I get that. But in the end, I'm using those cultures as leaping-off points for the tale I'm trying to tell. I don't want to be bound by our history. I want to create a world where I can explore what it would be like to have different landscapes and different cultural crucibles and see what comes of it. So in many ways I'm comfortable with this approach. (That's not to say that I don't wish I was wider read. I do. But the day is only so long...)

And also, I wasn't completely bereft of research before I dove in. I trolled various sources for customs of the time periods and regions I was borrowing from. I looked into the garb of the time, the drink, the food, the arms and armor. I also drew from personal experience like taking a few sails on a three-masted schooner and going to see a traditional Russian dance troupe that was touring the US. I spent a lot of time looking into artwork, particularly Russian iconography.

So while I didn't read the Russian tradition, I think I absorbed a lot of it from a variety of other sources. I think it seeped into me before I dove in, and I tried to reinforce it as I wrote, revisiting some of those sources now and again to rekindle those inner flames that made me want to borrow from Russian culture in the first place.

Justin: What's your interest in Eastern (steppe?) cultures?

Inspiring fantasy authors
since 1984!
Beaulieu: I think my initial interest in Russia and the steppes can be traced back to high school and college days. When I was in high school in the 80s, it wasn't exactly the height of the Red Scare, but there were still echoes running through middle America (see Red Dawn and the like), especially as things like Reagan's Star Wars initiative hit our social consciousness. But I never felt any of that stuff. I didn't have anything against the Russians. They'd never done anything to me, and so, while the threat of war felt at least somewhat real, I never felt any animosity toward the people.

This was reinforced for me when I worked with a Russian immigrant one year—at a weapons contractor, no less. We inspected circuit boards for all sorts of things—cruise missiles among them—but both of us had a programming background. We struck up a friendship. During our dinner breaks, I helped him with his English, and we talked a bit about life in Russia as compared to the US, and he echoed the things that I'd been feeling: that the people of Russia didn't think of Americans as enemies.

Justin: Did you see a gap in the kinds of cultures that genre fiction pull from so you endeavored to fill it?

Beaulieu: When I think back to the genesis of Winds and what I wanted to explore and how, I already knew that it was a cold and inhospitable place. From there I sort of stumbled onto Russian culture as one of my touchstones for the story, but I can't say that Russian culture, specifically, was something I recognized as a gap that needed filling. I'd long grown tired of the traditional fantasies. Even despite this malaise, I had already written two novels that would be shelved right along with the rest of what I would call middle of the road fantasies. I was just starting out, and, well, part of me just wasn't daring enough, and part of it was that my writing muscles just weren't strong enough to do anything else. But by the time I was ready to write Winds, I knew I wanted to try something new. Something more bold. On the other hand, I wasn't looking to create a new genre, either. I just wanted to bring something fresh to a genre that can at times feel stale.

Justin: Did you have any heartburn about the use of Russian words?

Beaulieu: Some, yes. On those words that don't have much of a direct translation—like cherkesska for the long coats the military wear, or the names of weaponry, or kozyol (goat) for a swear word—I didn't really think twice about it. They bring a certain amount (and the right amount, in my opinion) of foreignness to the read. I debated some time over things like privyet for "hello" and dasvidaniya for "good-bye." They were coming close to direct translations that might be better left translated, but in the end, I kept a smattering of these to color the text.

I also thought long and hard over the use of da and nyet in the text. Some people are put off by this. Others don't seem to be bothered by it. I think if I'd ended up with only one culture and one language, I probably wouldn't have used those words, but I started out of the gate with two primary languages (Yrstanlanan and Mahndi) and I've added two more since, and I wanted some way to orient the reader through dialogue (similar to aye and nay in Scottish). I wanted them to have a cue that the characters were speaking one language or the other. And now that I've expanded to four languages total, I've continued to use that. Whether or not that works for the reader, I can't say, but that was my intent: to provide simple cues that also added some flavor to the read.

Justin: Your name seems pretty French. I'm not an etymologist though. Why isn't everyone saying bonjour and eating crepes?

Been meaning to scope this
one out.
Beaulieu: Oui, mon nom est très français (though my ancestors took a detour through Quebec). You know, I may just do that some day. After all, how much French-based fantasy do you see? As a small aside, one of my favorite fantasy movies was the 2001 French film, Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des loups). The movie didn't quite live up to the expectations set in the beginning of the film, but I really loved the mixture of 18th century France and the Iroquois companion and the mystery of the beast with the addition of Hong Kong-style martial arts. It was a heady mixture, and it's something I might some day explore for a novel.

Justin: In my review, I wondered how many other presses outside of Night Shade would take a chance of this kind book (and I applaud them for it).  Am I full of it?

Beaulieu: Well, the book was only on submission to DAW and Night Shade, so I can't say for sure, but it sure does seem to me that Night Shade is finding stories that you wouldn't think would be placed with the bigger publishers. More and more, the Big 6 are looking like the big studios in Hollywood. They look for what's worked in the past, and then they try to gobble up anything that looks like it in hopes of making money on riding that wave. Whereas outfits like Night Shade and Pyr and Angry Robot are more like what Miramax used to be, a studio that took chances on small films they believed in but that didn't fit the typical Hollywood blockbuster. I applaud all three presses and smaller ones like them for what they're doing. I think it's a necessary thing in fiction today, because the days of getting multiple series to establish yourself as a writer are over at the bigger publishing houses. They've become very cutthroat, and it's places like Night Shade that are now leading the way in new voices.

Justin: You're a contributor over at Night Bazaar.  There seems to be a real comradery among this year's crop of Night Shade debut authors.  How have you found that whole experience?

Beaulieu: Wow, it's been great. I didn't really know what to expect. We all entered it as a way to promote, but as these things go, you develop friendships along the way. That—and not the marketing—is the thing I'm going to value the most from the experience. I've met almost everyone in person, and we've become a tight knit group, and I certainly hope that continues in the future.

We're ceding control of the Bazaar over to Night Shade at the end of the year, and though we'll still be involved, it will no longer be our baby. But instead, we'll have our memories of this crazy year of debuts, plus the regular contributions from Martha Wells and so many other guest posters. It's been wonderful to share the experience of "coming out" as an author, not only from the perspective of celebrating, but learning, supporting, and sometimes commiserating.

Justin: Ok, last question, and it's a toughie.  My review (and some others I've read) makes mention of the novel's struggles with obscurity and/or clarity.  As a writer, what do you take from that?  Are these problems you knew (feared) were present or is it by design?

Droopier mustache would sell 
the Russian thing better.
Beaulieu: I mind these questions as "an author" because, now that the story has been released to the world, part of me wants to stay removed from the mechanics and the details of its creation. As "a writer," however, I'm more than willing to share, because it may in fact help someone else who's also dedicating themselves to the craft.

One of my biggest weaknesses as a writer has always been (and I've no idea why this is) that I don't give quite enough explanation, exposition, backstory, what have you. I tend to err on the side of telling to little than telling too much. Part of this, I suppose, is that those are the stories I like to read. I like meatier tales that force me to do a bit of work. But another part—right or wrong—is that when I'm explaining things, I feel like the reader is yawning, waiting for me to get back to the real story. Now I know even while saying that that part of the enjoyment of fiction is to understand what came before, to understand how things work, to understand why characters are like they are. And so I certainly do try to balance this. I try to recognize this weakness of mine and explain more than I'm comfortable doing so that the balance will be "just right" for the reader.

I'm loath to judge my own fiction now that it's out in the world, so I won't comment on whether I've found the right balance or not—that's not my place to say anymore—but as you say, there are things to learn from astute readers, particularly reviewers that read a lot, have a good background in the field, and give good thought to the strengths and weaknesses of a story. I have and will continue to read reviews and weigh them against the story and my writing to see if any adjustments are necessary.

To answer the question about clearing things up in future novels, I had hoped to make Winds a rather complete story, but there are always things left unsaid, things only hinted at that might be revealed later. One of the things that I thought was most interesting about it was Nasim's past and the history of Ghayavand, the island upon which much of the trilogy hinges. The second book, The Straits of Galahesh, delves deeply into Nasim's past and uncovers some of the mystery of his nature and why he is like he is. And this in turn shows a certain trajectory for where the world at large is headed.

Justin: Thanks for doing this. And sorry if some of these questions are a pain in the ass.

Beaulieu: Very happy to answer them. These were challenging, even daunting, but I'm glad you asked them. Thanks so much for having me, and again, thanks for allowing me to share with your readers.

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At December 9, 2011 at 9:03 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

This was a pretty long interview, which has its pitfalls on the internet. "Who wants to read a 3000 word post on the internet"?

I found it fascinating.

At December 9, 2011 at 9:20 AM , Blogger Justin said...

I've decided to become the Bill Simmons of SFF blogging. No post under 2500 words!

At December 9, 2011 at 9:22 AM , Anonymous Brad Beaulieu said...

Just cut every third word. People will still get it. Kinda.

At December 10, 2011 at 1:53 AM , Anonymous Paul Genesse said...

Excellent interview and it's always great to read questions that have some actual grounding in the author's work, rather than the "standard" (meaning boring) questions most interviewers ask because they've never actually read the author's book. As a big fan of Brad Beaulieu's work it was cool to read his thoughts on the creation of his Winds of Khalakovo world. Good job, Justin, and I very much appreciated the author's insight on his own writing process. I'm looking forward to the release of book two.


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