Risingshadow has had the honour of interviewing Courtney Schafer.
Courtney Schafer is an American debut fantasy author, whose debut book, The Whitefire Crossing, was published in July/August 2011 by Night Shade Books. It's the first book of The Shattered Sigil series (the second book, The Tainted City, will be published in 2012). Click here to visit Courtney Schafer's official website.
AN INTERVIEW WITH COURTNEY SCHAFER
Your debut fantasy book, The Whitefire Crossing, was published a while ago. How did it feel to write your own fantasy book?
Pretty darn cool. Make no mistake, writing a novel involves a lot of hard work, but it’s like climbing a mountain: the rewards far outweigh the effort. You know when you’re reading a book you love, and you’re transported out of yourself, completely immersed in a new and fantastic world? That’s what writing is like for me – and the really cool part is that the experience continues for months (or however long it takes to write the novel), as opposed to the mere hours it takes me to finish even the fattest of fantasy books. Even more exciting is the idea of sharing my world and characters with other fantasy readers. I’ve loved fantasy and science fiction for so long, and I’ve gotten so much joy out of reading my favorite novels – the thought of giving that joy back to others is truly wonderful.
How did you come up with the idea of writing your own fantasy book? Have you always wanted to write your own fantasy book?
I love to read, and I read fast – in my pre-parenthood days, I would read a book a day – and I used to moan about the interminable waits for new books to come out from my favorite authors. Finally it occurred to me I should stop whining and instead try writing more of the types of stories I wanted to read, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. It took a few years of messing around writing little bits of things before I got serious about writing a novel (and a further realization that scenes don’t have to be flawless before you move on in a first draft!), but that moment was essentially the genesis of The Whitefire Crossing.
Do you consider writing a fulltime job or a hobby? What do you do in your free time?
Many writers dream of ditching their day job and writing full time. I’m not one of them. I much prefer to keep writing as something I do for love, rather than to put food on the table. The publishing industry is so variable and inefficient, and authors get paid so little; I’d go crazy from stress if I had to depend on writing income. Besides, I quite like my day job as an engineer in the aerospace industry. I work on interesting projects, I get paid very well for my time, and I get all the nice benefits like excellent health care and 401K retirement funds. The cushy engineer salary also helps me afford the other hobbies I love: mountain climbing, figure skating, canyoneering, and skiing. (Figure skating in particular is a horrifically expensive sport – but oh, how I love competing!) I must confess I don’t have much free time these days, between day job, writing, and mothering my toddler, but I still skate, ski, climb, and hike as much as I can. I also read, anywhere and everywhere I can (post office lines, bus stops, doctor waiting rooms). Reading is like breathing to me – no matter how busy I get, I can’t conceive of life without it.
What are your favourite fantasy authors and books? Have these authors and books influenced your writing style?
My all-time favorite author is Dorothy Dunnett. Her two major series (the Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolo) are usually shelved in historical fiction, but I’d argue that they qualify equally well as historical fantasy, thanks to the suggestion of clairvoyant mental powers in certain characters. I like to say that everything I know about plot, I learned from reading Dunnett – her skill in that area is unparalleled. Her plots are complex, multilayered creations, with incredible twists and turns, and yet every last detail fits together perfectly from the first book in her series to the last. I can only hope one day I’ll have half her skill. Other favorite fantasy authors include Carol Berg (her Lighthouse Duet in particular), Patricia McKillip (The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and the Riddlemaster trilogy), Martha Wells (City of Bones, The Cloud Roads), Elizabeth Bear (the Stratford Man duology), Guy Gavriel Kay (A Song for Arbonne), Mark Helprin (Winter’s Tale), Tad Williams (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy), Emma Bull (Territory, Freedom & Necessity), Robin Hobb (Farseer trilogy), Catherynne M. Valente (The Habitation of the Blessed), Megan Whalen Turner (the Queen’s Thief series).
Did your own experiences about rock climbing and backpacking inspire you to write a fantasy adventure about a travel across the mountains?
Definitely. When I wrote the first draft of The Whitefire Crossing, I wasn’t thinking yet of publication, only of what I’d most like to read. I love fantasy books full of magic and intrigue, and as a climber, I also love tales of mountain adventure. I thought it’d be fun to set a fantasy story in a landscape similar to one of my favorite places to hike and climb (the eastern Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley, in California), and make some of the characters climbers. That way I could combine two of the genres I enjoy most.
How did you become interested in rock climbing and outdoor adventures?
It’s funny, I grew up in the urban sprawl of northern Virginia, the child of parents whose idea of a great vacation was lounging in air-conditioned comfort. Yet from earliest childhood I loved reading stories set in the wild, whether it was jungles, ocean deeps, mountains, or deserts. My paternal grandparents lived in the Appalachian Mountains – which honestly are more like glorified hills than mountains, but I was always terribly excited to go visit them so I could scramble around in the forest and pretend I was on a wilderness quest. But because my parents weren’t interested at all in hiking, camping, or climbing, it wasn’t until I went to Caltech for college that I got the chance for real mountain adventures. I learned to hike, backpack, ski, scuba dive, and rock climb there, and despite my lack of a car, spent many happy hours exploring the San Gabriel and Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the Mojave Desert. When I moved to Colorado for grad school, I added mountaineering and canyoneering to the mix, and I’ve never looked back.
Are there any places you'd like to visit and explore?
Oh gosh, that’s even tougher than asking my favorite books – there are so many places I’m dying to see! The three top places outside of the US are probably Patagonia (I drool every time I see a picture of the Fitzroy Massif!), British Columbia (Heli-skiing in the Monashee/Cariboo mountains is something I’m determined to do before I die), and the Dolomites in Italy (I’d love to do some Via Ferrata routes there as well as more standard peak climbs). Within the US, aside from my usual stomping grounds of the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, the canyonlands of Utah/Arizona, and the Grand Canyon, I’d love to spend more time in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. My husband and I did a backpack trip there to Cirque of the Towers a few years ago, and the scenery was spectacular – but my husband sprained his ankle badly on the approach hike, and so we couldn’t do any peak climbs. I want to go back and explore the area further (and this time, do some climbs!).
Your book has two male characters, Dev and Kiran. Are these characters based on any real persons or are they completely fictional characters?
Completely fictional. I suppose some parts of Dev’s personality come from the more daring of the climbers I’ve known (as opposed to me, since I’m cautious to a fault when climbing!), but I didn’t base him on anyone in particular.
Was it difficult to write about male characters?
Not especially. In both engineering and mountain climbing, I’ve spent most of my time surrounded by guys, so I felt fairly confident I could write from a male perspective. I did ask my husband on occasion to “vet” bits of internal dialogue, to make sure it felt right. But honestly, when I write characters I don’t worry so much over the gender issue as think about them as individual people. My own experience as a girl who enjoys many things considered traditionally male is that people don’t fall into two widely separated camps; it’s more of a spectrum, and the challenge as a writer is to make a character consistent and believable in their reactions and personality, regardless of gender.
You've created an interesting fantasy world where magic is either allowed or outlawed. Magic can also be dangerous and deadly. What inspired you to explore the use of magic?
I think magic provides an interesting way to examine ethical dilemmas and the effects of power on a person’s psyche, without all the restrictions and baggage that go along with more ordinary forms of power (like political power). If you’re writing about someone in the real world who has the capability to easily destroy lives or save them, there are a limited number of situations where that’s believable for a character. But with magic, you’ve got a lot more freedom both with character and with the world they live in. You can set up seriously hard choices for your characters and explore themes of temptation, addiction, and moral corruption in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And it’s always fun to let your imagination run wild with “what if?” scenarios, and then work through the consequences for a society. For the world of the Shattered Sigil series, I wanted to explore some of the tradeoffs between freedom and security in a society – so on the one hand, you’ve got the city of Ninavel, where anything goes and profit is the highest law; and on the other hand, you’ve got a country who believes safety and order are far more important than personal freedom, and enacts some pretty harsh penalties to keep control.
Your second book, The Tainted City, will be published next year. Have you already begun to write it?
Yes, I’m currently hard at work on it (and loving every minute – I’m just as excited about this novel as I was about writing The Whitefire Crossing!). The Tainted City is a direct sequel to The Whitefire Crossing, picking up soon afterward and following Dev and Kiran’s continuing story. Much of the novel takes place in the city of Ninavel; readers will get to find out more about the city’s politics and inner workings, as Dev and Kiran confront enemies both new and old. But for anyone who loved the mountaineering scenes in The Whitefire Crossing, don’t worry – Dev’s climbing and wilderness skills still play a significant role.
Is there anything you'd like to add or is there anything you'd like to say to your readers?
Thanks so much for inviting me to RisingShadow! I really appreciate all the work you do here that makes the site such a great resource for sf&f fans. And to readers: if you enjoy tales of magic, intrigue, and adventure, I hope you’ll give The Whitefire Crossing a try!